houston voices

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.

------

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.

Trending News

 
 

Promoted

Revealed at an event earlier this month, the Ion is now home to installations by Houston-based artists Christopher Blay and Kill Joy, which play on the traditional window displays the building hosted for years as the historic Sears Building. Photo courtesy of Marc Furi Creative/the Ion

Two new art installations at the Ion speak to the building's past and its potential future.

Revealed at an event earlier this month, the innovation hub developed by Rice University is now home to installations by Houston-based artists Christopher Blay and Kill Joy, which play on the traditional window displays the building hosted for years as the historic Sears Building.

The pieces are part of the Ion's Eye on Art program, according to a release. Each was selected by the Ion and Ion District Art Advisory Council with support from Piper Faust.

"Innovation and art have a lot more in common than you might think. Many of our local artists learn how to use emerging technologies to create their pieces and hone their craft,” Jan E. Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says in a statement. “Creativity plays a vital role in fostering innovation and we’re honored to provide artists like Christopher and Kill Joy with a platform to serve as an inspiration for the entire innovation ecosystem here at the Ion.”

Blay, who's an artist, writer and currently serves as the chief curator of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, created his installation in collaboration with the Ion Prototyping Lab. Using canvases and wood frames, the installation depicts slaving vessels and spaceships to "symbolizes where the Black community has been and where they are going," according to the Ion.

The installation is part of Blay's latest body of work, “The SpLaVCe Program."

Joy's work focuses on environmental and social justice. Her installation at the Ion, “Creation, Current, Solution," uses animated puppets inspired by Filipino folklore to explore the intersection of technology and sustainable living.

Blay and Joy's installations will be on display for the next six months, and will rotate out to feature other Houston-based artists' work.

The Ion first launched the The Eye On Art Program in March 2022. The debut displays included Lina Dib’s over-the-top kitsch “Self-Portrait in the Garden” and Preston Gaines' multi-sensory “Fantasy Landscape.” The second rotation featured Lisa Morales and Stacey Gresell’s “The Collective Hive” and “Exploración Orgánica” by Maria Rodriguez, Miriam Mireles, Bryce Saucier, Timothy Hudson, and Victoria Armenta: “Exploración Orgánica”

Earlier this summer, the Ion also announced that it would launch its official workforce development partner’s 12- to 15- week technology skills training courses this fall.

Click through photos from the new installation below.

“The SpLaVCe Program" by Christopher Blay

Photo courtesy of Marc Furi Creative/the Ion

Trending News

 
 

Promoted