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Here's how Houston researchers are doing their work amid COVID-19

The University of Houston explores how research is being conducted in the age of the pandemic. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

As far as COVID-19 goes, Level 1 is the worst threat level. Harris County remains at Level 1, or "Severe Threat" for infection of the novel coronavirus. Yet, as they say in the theater, "The show must go on!" And for the most part, research is continuing in many ways. Surveys, interviews and other socially-distanced research has been easy to keep up during the COVID crisis.

How far away is six feet?

Some research must be done in person, though. Try to picture two golden retrievers standing nose to tail. Or a regular mattress. Or even the width of the front of your car. All of these measure in at about six feet. The droplets in the air are what can get you sick and when you stand at least six feet away from a person who is talking, laughing or coughing, you have a better chance of not breathing those virus molecules.

In the beginning... 

In human subjects research, the safety of participant volunteers is always of the utmost importance. This has only become more critical with the entrance of the pandemic in March 2020, and remains so today. In early March, PIs at the University of Houston were asked to review each of their studies and to let the University know whether missing visits would be detrimental to the safety or well-being of human subjects.

Some clinical studies (specifically those taking part in clinics that provide paid health services) were often allowed to continue under COVID precautions adopted by the medical community. Just as if you went to a doctor's office, there were rules: the 6-foot apart rule, mandatory mask-wearing, extra disinfecting and temperature checks. In some cases, modifications made such as the addition of plexiglass to instrumentation increased the safety of research procedures. Additional protections are in place to protect research staff and students; student involvement in research remains strictly voluntary.

What about IRBs?

At the University of Houston (UH), the Research Integrity and Oversight office is working with groups of faculty investigators, general counsel, Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management to put in place safety precautions for re-starting human subjects research where subjects are within six feet of the research team. This will happen once Judge Lina Hidalgo determines that Harris County may be downgraded to Level 2. These institutional requirements are in addition to and on top of the normal precautions taken by the Institutional Review Board, which is formally designated to, among other tasks, review, approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities involving human subjects.

Up close and personal

In the instance Harris County is downgraded to Threat Level 2, COVID-19 procedures have been approved for subjects undergoing research procedures at the UH College of Optometry and in Health and Human and Performance exercise physiology studies. Physiology test subjects are often on treadmills or are exhaling more droplets into the air through exertion brought on by exercise.

COVID-19 procedures for other research that include test subjects that need to be closer than six feet apart (examples: applying sensors, walking in an exoskeleton, completing manual tasks, etc.) have been submitted for review and are currently being evaluated. As this group encompasses such a wide variety of research procedures, it has taken the longest to draft.

Contact tracing

Screening questions, non-recorded temperature checks and a log of updated contact information are now required for all research endeavors. Screening questions mirror those recommended by CDC, including attestations as to whether the participant has had symptoms, travelled out of the country, or has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID.

The contact information is so that correct information is available should the researcher be contacted by a city or county health department for contact tracing purposes if a positive test result is reported for a subject or research team member. Finally, all subjects are asked to read and sign a document (in addition to the consent form) that explains the increased protections the university has put in place for those coming to campus during the pandemic, including face coverings, social distancing when possible and additional protections depending on the type of research being conducted.

Exceptions

Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of UH's Research Integrity and Oversight office said, "If there is a compelling justification – for example, a PI is conducting a long-term longitudinal study and missing data points might invalidate the study, or we are one of many research sites and are in jeopardy of losing funding because other (typically non-academic) sites are enrolling and we are not – the PI can contact the Research Integrity and Oversight office and request to use the procedures approved for Level 2 under Threat Level 1." But this also goes through a review process and requires a signed agreement by the investigator that they will follow all approved COVID procedures.

Better safe than sorry

There are always risks and benefits to participating in research, but what must be kept at the foreground of one's human subjects research is that we are considering volunteers. Research subjects must always weigh the risks and benefits of participating in research; a researcher must provide these risks and benefits in clear language that allows the subject to make an informed decision.

"During times of increased risk, such as a pandemic, the university must take further precautions to protect and inform our research subjects regarding the risks of being on campus during a pandemic. Research subjects and their commitment to the greater good fuel our research enterprise, and their safety is always paramount," said Holzschuh.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Madison Long of Clutch, Ty Audronis of Tempest Droneworx, and Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from drones to energy tech— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Madison Long, co-founder and CEO of Clutch

Madison Long joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Clutch's recent national launch and the role Houston played in the company's success. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch — founded by CEO Madison Long and CTO Simone May — celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence." Read more and listen to the episode.

Ty Audronis, co-founder of Tempest Droneworks

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis, fueled by wanting to move the needle on wildfire prevention, wanted to upgrade existing processes with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Read more.

Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer and head of Houston incubator of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is now the chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs, as well as continuing to be head of the Houston incubator. Image courtesy of Greentown

Greentown Labs named a new member to its C-suite. Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate. Read more.

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