Houston voices

University of Houston looks at how to navigate which ongoing research is considered essential

Is all research essential? Nope. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Many researchers have begun to work from home due to the novel COVID-19 pandemic, and only essential personnel are allowed to work on university campuses. For a researcher, what is considered "essential personnel"? Isn't all research essential to the workings of a public research university?

In a word, no.

As much as one would like to believe their respective job is of the utmost importance to human existence, certain mitigating factors can overrule that sensibility – and the definition of the word "essential" – in a moment's time. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, a Ph.D. candidate researching diabetes at the University of Toronto said, "There is no single experiment or laboratory activity that is more important than saving the life of even a single individual in the community."

Your university or institution may not have closed completely, yet it is safe to suspect that you have been asked to complete most of your work remotely. With most counties in the nation declaring a shelter in place order, researchers who have been required to "ramp down" lab activities may be feeling extreme disappointment and even panic.

Allowances and exceptions for federally funded research

The NSF has extended deadlines for some applications and reports. For instance, it has extended the dates of all annual project reports due between March 1 and April 30 by 30 days. In addition, the charge of costs or fees that have been incurred due to COVID-19 can be negotiated, as long as there is proper documentation and the result is not a shortage of funds to eventually carry out the project.

The NIH released NOT-OD-20-086 on March 12, 2020 to alert the research community of certain flexibilities which apply to NIH applicants and recipients. Some of these include pre-award costs, extension of required reporting, prior approval waivers and expenditure of award funds – especially involving travel. There are other exceptions being made, including allowing salaries to be charged against grant monies in some instances.

So, you have to go to campus

If you are a researcher who ensures the continuity of key operations, such as an animal care operations worker, there are several things you can do to keep yourself and your colleagues safe, which will come as no

surprise:

  1. Very few researchers are allowed on campus. If you are working on campus, keep 6 feet away from your co-workers. There should be a greatly reduced number of researchers in the lab or facility at any given time.
  2. Wash your hands. Follow all environmental safety and hazardous material rules to a tee.
  3. Be careful when getting deliveries and regularly clean your workspace.
  4. Research the many funding opportunities that are available to contribute to the solution of COVID-19 related issues.

Just breathe…it’s going to be okay

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that an emergency plan is the best bet for staving off panic and flowing as seamlessly as possible into a remote working situation. As always, safety is goal one and this situation's trajectory is causing safety concerns to escalate. Your research will ramp up again, make no mistake, although for the time being it may have fallen victim to this outbreak. If you stay in close adherence to policies put forth by your institution and you keep your sponsor abreast of your next steps, all will work out in the end.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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