Community Conversations: Rebooting Research, Phase One

Provost Joseph Helble and guests discuss how labs will start to reopen May 26.

Watch the May 20 Community Conversation broadcast with Provost Joseph Helble and guests Dean Madden, vice provost for research; Margie Ackerman, professor of engineering; and David Leib, professor of microbiology and immunology.

Research—namely phase one of how Dartmouth intends to safely and incrementally ramp up access to campus laboratories—was the topic of the May 20 Community Conversations broadcast with Provost Joseph Helble and guests Dean Madden, vice provost for research; Margie Ackerman, professor of engineering at Thayer School of Engineering; and David Leib, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Geisel School of Medicine.

Earlier in the day, Madden sent an email to faculty, staff, and students announcing the first phase of the process by which Dartmouth plans to start to relax the limits on laboratory-based research that have been in effect since mid-March.

Beginning Tuesday, May 26, labs whose research requires in-person work may designate one person to be on campus at any given time. However, everyone who can work from home must continue to do so, and all research activity must comply with new guidelines on Dartmouth's Environmental Health & Safety website.

"Some have asked me, why are we starting with laboratory research?" said Helble, speaking from the Starr Studio in Dartmouth Library's Baker-Berry Library.

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Provost Joseph Helble, Vice Provost for Research Dean Madden, Professor of Engineering Margie Ackerman, and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology David Leib.
Speaking to the community in the fourth episode of the series were, clockwise, from top left: Provost Joseph Helble, Vice Provost for Research Dean Madden, Professor of Engineering Margie Ackerman, and Professor of Microbiology and Immunology David Leib.

Throughout the spring, President Philip J. Hanlon '77 has emphasized that the return to in-person teaching is as high a priority as restarting research but has greater complexity because of the need to house students in addition to having them back in the classroom. Helble said the gradual phasing in of research activity is a controlled opportunity for the institution to prepare for the challenges of reopening campus on a larger scale.

"By starting slowly and starting small with a very limited on-campus operation, we can examine, evaluate, and learn as we move forward," Helble said. "All of this will help us to plan for the in-person teaching, in-person learning, and in-person living that we hope to do with the maximum number of students that we can safely accommodate by this fall."

Helble was joined via Zoom by Madden, Ackerman, and Leib who spoke from their homes. The four fielded viewers' questions, relayed by Vice President for Communications Justin Anderson, who moderated the session from a room adjacent to the Starr Studio. The session was the fourth Community Conversations broadcast of the weekly online forum for members of the Dartmouth community to ask questions and learn from campus leaders about the institution's priorities, decisions, and operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madden addressed the operational issues involved in allowing some researchers back into their labs during phase one and what it will take to progress to phase two, while Ackerman and Leib discussed their COVID-19-related research.

Of the phased process for ramping up research, Madden said, "I want to emphasize that all of this is really allowing us to exercise the muscles" that the institution will need to develop to allow students to return to campus, from facility disinfection protocols to health screenings and contact tracing.

"These protocols are completely new—we've never done them on campus, but we will need them in the fall if we are doing residential education. We are learning at this time, in this very limited and safe environment, how to refine this so that they're really effective."

Ackerman's immunoengineering lab is one of the few labs to continue some research this spring, applying "the practical approaches near and dear to the hearts of engineers" to the study of the immune system, including antibodies produced by recovered COVID-19 patients—a collaboration with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Geisel, and the Upper Valley-based biotech company Adimab.

Ackerman's research group is currently screening antibodies to locate the best candidates for a possible vaccine.

"This is a little bit like what Netflix does when it makes a suggestion about a program that you would like to watch or Amazon suggests a purchase for you," Ackerman said. "Understanding what the characteristics of the most effective antibodies are will give us a target profile for evaluating vaccine candidates."

This project began in March when "three enterprising PhD students staked out my office to tell me the plan of how we could adapt our approaches to understanding immunity to contribute to coronavirus and pursue vaccine and antibody interventions," she said. "I'm proud of their initiative. When the world was getting disrupted, they were thinking about what they could do to contribute and to combat that disruption."

On the diagnostic side of the coronavirus problem, Leib's lab is working on a faster, more reliable test for COVID-19.

"This test provides many advantages," he said. "It's very quick. It's very sensitive. It has a very low false positive and false negative rate, and it's really quite uniquely simple, so that it can be used in low-resource settings throughout the world."

"How fast is 'quick'?" Helble asked.

"The test that we have been working on has a turnaround time of about 40 minutes," Leib said.

Asked how long it will take for a COVID-19 vaccine to be readily available, Ackerman and Leib said it would take a year or more.

"We can't make it rosier than that," Ackerman said.

"One thing that is changing is the availability of testing," Leib said. "That has improved, and may help the surveying of our community."

In addition to the discussion of research, Helble provided updates on other COVID-19-related issues:

  • On progress toward returning student belongings left behind at the end of winter term, 98 percent of seniors have responded to a survey of their preferences for how they would like their things returned, and Student Affairs staff is following up as needed. The survey is now open to all other undergraduates.
  • The faculty has approved an expansion of the non-recording option for grades during summer term to permit students to use the option for up to three eligible courses, which would not be counted in the maximum three that a student may earn during their Dartmouth career.
  • Dartmouth is working to reopen the Dartmouth College Child Care Center at reduced capacity in the late spring or early summer, if New Hampshire rules permit.
  • Decisions about first-year trips and fall off-campus programs will be announced next week. The decision about whether—and how many—students can return to campus in the fall will be announced June 29.

Helble and Madden also described some of the other activities faculty and students have been engaged in this spring. Thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor, Madden's office has been able to distribute nine $5,000-$10,000 "Sparks" grants to researchers across the institution, including a telehealth initiative for pregnant women in rural areas and a film collaboration with the physics department and film and media studies. Helble read a message from Daniel Kotlowitz, chair of the theater department, detailing the creative ways theater faculty, staff, and students have adapted to remote learning.

Community Conversations airs Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. Past episodes are available on the Community Conversations site, which includes call-in numbers for those who want to listen to the show without video. Find out how to watch or listen to the broadcast.

Next week, President Hanlon and trustee Chair Laurel Richie '81 will join Helble to discuss a number of topics, including the Call to Lead campaign's focus on raising funds for financial aid.

Community Conversations is produced by Dartmouth's Media Production Group and the Office of Communications.

For the latest information on Dartmouth's response to the pandemic visit the COVID-19 website.

Hannah Silverstein can be reached at [email protected]