About 15 years ago, Ion Ghiviriga bought a sample changer to streamline work in the Center for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in the chemistry lab building. Users of the lab, comfortable with running their tests themselves, were underwhelmed.
“I was the only one using it,” says Ghiviriga, the director of the facility.
Then along came a pandemic. In March, NMR work shut down along with the rest of the University of Florida campus.
In May, when the facility reopened, Ghiviriga needed a way to run NMR tests while observing social distancing guidelines, and he thought a sample changer would help. He had retired the unused 15-year-old model, but a newer sample changer had arrived with equipment purchased in 2018. He set it up, and the formerly reluctant researchers are using it. And this time, they like it.
“I think this experience has changed their habits and convinced them of the utility of the sample changer. More than half of them say they prefer it now,” says Ghiviriga, who plans to purchase another one.
The NMR lab has about 200 users from the chemistry department and across the campus and was a bustling space before the pandemic. NMR is the most powerful method to determine molecular structure, making the lab a key part of experiments in which researchers need to check reactions or characterize compounds.
Before the pandemic, Ghiviriga spent a great deal of time training researchers, both students and faculty, on how to use the powerful, yet sensitive, equipment. With access to the lab restricted, he has set up an online booking procedure for researchers to submit samples. After they have requested a time slot, they drop off their sample in a tube outside the door to the lab.
The samples fit in a 5 mm tube the size of a ballpoint pen. When the samples are processed, they go back to the table for pickup. The results from the tests go into a directory that the researcher can access to transfer the data to their own computers. Using specialized software, the data can then be analyzed.
“So now, instead of training users on how to use the spectrometers, I train them on how to process the data in the software,” Ghiviriga says. “It is a big change.”
Despite the efficiency of the new system, one drawback is that people who previously would have sought training on the equipment likely now will just use the service and never get hands-on experience with NMR. Ghiviriga also misses the interactions from the pre-pandemic days.
“We have five instruments, so people were coming and going all the time. It was like a hive,” Ghiviriga says. “My office was there, and I would just tell people ‘just knock, interrupt me, I will answer your question in one minute.’ That made me feel interactive and useful.”
By Cindy Spence
Whitney Stoppel wanted each person in her engineering lab to have a clean mask to wear each lab shift. A tall order for a 14-person lab, but she knew someone who could help.
“I asked my Mom if she would be able to use her crafting skills that she used to make clothing for my dolls when I was growing up to make a bunch of masks.
“She was happy to do that.”
Stoppel’s chemical engineering lab works on tissue engineering and regenerative medical research. The personal protective equipment for the lab already included lab coats, gloves and goggles. With students sitting at a tissue culture hood or pipetting for hours, Stoppel saw the potential for multiple, sweaty masks needing to be changed.
“If I didn’t want to do laundry every night, we would need enough masks to last us all a week,” Stoppel says. “Then they could be laundered over the weekend to prepare for Monday morning.”
Lab work can get messy, and Stoppel didn’t want the students to have to use their personal masks in case those masks got soiled in lab and could not be worn elsewhere on campus.
“I wanted to ensure the students’ safety. We wouldn’t have been able to bring the undergraduates back or had enough masks to cover everybody without my Mom’s efforts,” Stoppel says.
The end of the shutdown also came with a new lab in the recently completed Herbert Wertheim Laboratory for Engineering Excellence, where she shares a collaborative space with researchers in other chemical engineering labs as well as those in materials science and mechanical and aerospace engineering. Stoppel’s lab moved in on Aug. 17.
“We have this lovely cluster of faculty across the college that work in biomaterials, synthetic biology, tissue engineering, and we can share resources and equipment,” Stoppel says.
One bright spot during the shutdown was a collaboration her Ph.D. student, Julie Jameson, started with the Butler Lab using Python to predict degradation of biomaterials.
“We probably would not have initiated that project without being required to work remotely,” Stoppel says.
As the chair of the department’s graduate recruiting committee, Stoppel has stayed busy on Zoom, “hosting” graduate students remotely. And she has masks ready for those who become Gators.
By Cindy Spence
When UF biologist Ana Longo applied for a permit to reopen her lab after lockdown, she knew she would need a key piece of new equipment: masks.
But not just any old masks.
With help from her talented husband, Longo produced masks featuring the endangered coqui frogs she studies.
“I made so many masks that I sent some to my family, some to my colleagues,” Longo says, “because of course, everyone needs a coqui mask.”
Longo’s husband, Alberto Lopez Torres, the outreach coordinator for the Florida Museum of Natural History, used his photography and artistic skills to design the coqui frog fabric. Then Longo took her sewing machine out of storage and went to work.
“I learned to sew,” says Longo, an assistant professor of biology. “I had the sewing machine, and I always said, ‘one day, I’ll learn to do that.’ Finally, that day came.”
Longo tucked the limited-edition masks into kits with hand sanitizer that greeted her returning students.
While the students were able to do field work starting in June at UF’s Ordway–Swisher Biological Station and the on-campus Natural Area Teaching Laboratory, Longo has not been able to return to Puerto Rico yet, where the coqui frogs are a national symbol. Like many amphibians, the frogs have been infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a chytrid fungus that Longo says is like the pandemic of the amphibian world. Longo has funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but needs to return to Puerto Rico, where she grew up, to do her field work.
The shutdown, she says, opened some doors. Longo says she participated in a podcast and did interviews and wrote articles, and participated in an outreach encounter with the California Academy of Sciences.
“We discovered different kinds of interactions, and maybe we’re reaching a larger audience than before,” Longo says. “I wasn’t expecting so many people to be interested in frogs.
“We have to think about being able to make everything we do accessible for a broader audience,” Longo says.
The lab, she says, transitioned to Zoom for both business and connection, even celebrating Amphibian Week in early June online (see photo).
“Everyone was making bread during the shutdown,” Longo says. “We made ours in the shapes of frogs and amphibians.”
By Cindy Spence
To the delight of his students, Carlos Rinaldi was one of the lucky researchers chosen on May 18 to “beta test” plans for resuming research in UF’s shuttered labs.
“The students were excited to get back into the lab, but at the same time, things were changing every day,” says Rinaldi, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering.
“So I told my students, ‘this will just be an experiment as well, an experiment in how to do this safely.’”
Returning to the lab also meant returning to work with a new imaging technology UF purchased in February 2019. UF is one of only four universities in the U.S. with the technology, called magnetic particle imaging, or MPI. MPI provides a quantitative, non-invasive and unambiguous way of tracking magnetic nanoparticles, which can be used in cancer immunotherapy to track immune cells.
“I wouldn’t claim that MPI is a replacement for PET (positron emission tomography) or SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), but it’s a complimentary imaging technology that allows us to answer other questions,” says Rinaldi, the Dean’s Leadership Professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Although the lab lost some work with cell culture and mice, the team shifted into overdrive in working on a paper about to be submitted. After the initial shock of being shooed from the lab wore off, the group quickly turned to brainstorming how to make the most of the time at home.
“We couldn’t be in the lab, so what could we do to continue to do science?” Rinaldi says.
The students responded beyond his expectations, learning new skills to become better scientists. Some of the students took the time to learn computer programming, with the goal of learning to analyze data in ways they could not prior to the pandemic.
“Frankly, if we had not been in the pandemic, I don’t think they would have learned it so quickly,” Rinaldi says. “Because of the situation, they really focused.”
The team also came up with new ways to conduct experiments without animals, developing 3D printable anatomically correct phantoms.
“We were able to make these in our lab and modify them for our experiments,” Rinaldi says.
Those experiments were added to the animal experiments finished just before the shutdown, and the whole lab made a contribution.
“The pandemic was an opportunity for all of us to step back and re-evaluate,” Rinaldi says. “We asked every student to think about what they could do that did not require the lab to advance their career.
“With all that’s going on in the world, I’m really proud of my students for being able to focus and move forward.”
By Cindy Spence
For biomedical engineering graduate student Heather Blackwell, wearing a mask is not a matter of surviving the pandemic.
It’s a matter of surviving.
“I’ve been wearing a mask for over a year now, and I’m used to them being a part of my life,” says Blackwell, whose immune system was compromised by a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, in July 2019. “Not wearing a mask can have deadly implications for me.”
As a medical technician licensed to work with stem cells, she was intimately familiar with cancer treatment protocols and as part of the LifeSouth blood bank team, had worked on stem cell research with UF Professor Jon Dobson before joining his lab. After becoming a patient, she received about 50 transfusions.
“That’s why I want to work with blood products,” Blackwell says. “Cancer patients are in constant need of blood. The need is so great.”
As part of the Dobson Lab in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering, Blackwell plans to work with stem cells, with the long-term goal of differentiating hemopoietic stem cells to make blood products. Dobson says he is looking forward to Blackwell getting back into the lab when things settle down with COVID. In the meantime, Blackwell is participating in group meetings and outlining her proposed research.
“I have always been impressed with her work,” Dobson says, “so I’m very pleased to have her joining the lab.”
Blackwell says she was lucky to find a stem cell match with her brother. She was at the 100-day mark after her stem cell transplant, just at the point when a trip to the grocery store was a much-anticipated outing, when the pandemic hit.
“I was just starting to be able to get out, so the quarantine was a bit of a bummer,” Blackwell says.
She understands that masks are an adjustment for some, but points out that even her 5-year-old daughter dons one happily. “I figure college students will be able to do it, too.”
By Cindy Spence
When UF offices and labs reopened, many staffers found a prized bottle of hand sanitizer at work stations thanks to the Chemistry Department.
After the shutdown in March, store shelves were picked clean of hand sanitizer, but chemistry teaching lab assistant Candace Biggerstaff realized she had all the ingredients for hand sanitizer sitting on her lab shelves. She downloaded a recipe from the World Health Organization and went to work. UF Health got first priority, but many UF staff members also benefitted.
The chemistry department did such a good job of manufacturing hand sanitizer that it began to run low on supplies. To read more about the effort and how to donate ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, glycerol or hydrogen peroxide to the department, click here.
In the lettuce breeding and genetics program at the University of Florida’s Everglades Research and Education Center, the pandemic hit just about at the end of the lettuce season.
While the program lost a few experiments, the timing allowed the lab group to use the shutdown to figure out how to get ready for the next growing season in the midst of a pandemic.
“We don’t work in the field during the summer, but we start again at the end of September, and a lot of that work will be conducted outside,” says Germán Sandoya, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We are not 100 percent back in the lab because of the coronavirus situation in Palm Beach County.”
The harvest began right after the shutdown, and the lab group took turns in the fields. Once the seed is harvested, it needs to be cleaned. The lab’s biological assistant picked up containers of seeds as they were harvested and took them home for cleaning and sorting, a meticulous process that involves thousands of seeds that need to be kept separated to avoid mixing one variety with another.
Sandoya’s lab studies ways to produce lettuce cultivars with disease resistance and heat tolerance and then determines the nutrient management guidelines for those cultivars.
Sandoya says his graduate students, three in Palm Beach County and one in Gainesville, were unable to go home, and took on some of the responsibility of keeping the lab going. The shutdown, he says, was not just difficult for research, but also emotionally.
“We were checking on the students, the students were checking on us,” Sandoya says. “I feel like what I saw the most was people caring about each other, and in a team, that’s pretty important.”
By Cindy Spence
Biology Ph.D. student Sarah McGrath-Blaser was already in the midst of a pandemic when the campus shut down in March.
She was studying a microscopic fungus that, like coronavirus, can’t be seen with the naked eye. The chytrid fungus is the amphibian equivalent of COVID-19, and like COVID-19, it’s a global threat.
“This is like a pandemic for salamanders, and it’s raging in Europe, although it hasn’t made it to the U.S. yet,” says McGrath-Blaser, who works in the lab of Assistant Professor Ana Longo.
When McGrath-Blaser got a permit to resume research in June, she headed straight to the Smoky Mountains, a world hotspot for salamander biodiversity. Even though she was working outdoors, her face mask was a key part of her field equipment.
“A lot of the spots where we were collecting soil samples were along the Appalachian Trail,” McGrath-Blaser says. “It’s such a popular trail that people were always stopping and asking me what I was doing.”
McGrath-Blaser brought the collected soil samples back to the lab in Carr Hall to inoculate with Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, a strain of the chytrid fungus particular to salamanders. The fungus is responsible for the decline of about 500 species of amphibians. McGrath-Blaser’s goal is to determine if the pathogen would be able to live in the soil if it does make it to North America. As a second-year Ph.D. student, this is McGrath-Blaser’s first major experiment in the lab, and one she will build on for other experiments in her doctoral work.
Now that labs are reopening, McGrath-Blaser says she is noticing a run on some lab supplies. For example, pipetting tips are changed between each sample, and the lab is running low enough on some sizes that it is rationing and reserving the tips for those with time-sensitive experiments, like McGrath-Blaser’s, that involve a live pathogen.
Other lab members are starting over. A student who was working with Cuban tree frogs, an invasive species that preys on native frogs and lizards, had to euthanize her specimens in March, so is starting over now with fresh new frogs.
The lab got the hang of Zoom fairly quickly, McGrath-Blaser says.
“We had a Zoom challenge on May 4, where we all dressed up as Star Wars characters.”
The theme? “May the fourth be with you.”
McGrath-Blaser says: “Our Zoom meetings helped us still feel connected and gave us something to look forward to.”
By Cindy Spence
As one of 600 new faculty hired in August 2019, Bryndan Durham walked into her new lab a year ago to find an empty room.
Lucky for her, part of her hiring package included an order for about a million dollars’ worth of what she calls the “latest, greatest” equipment for mass spectrometry, which will be housed at the UF Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research, where it can be shared with other researchers, too.
She settled into a routine in the fall and spring terms and tracked her order, until the big day in March when her prized equipment – including a timsTOF fleX, the first in the Southeast – arrived.
“The equipment got here, arriving in big ginormous boxes,” says Durham, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and the Genetics Institute, who studies marine microbiology.
“Then we shut down.”
Even when she returned to the lab in late June, she couldn’t get her hands on the equipment.
“You actually have to have a technician come and open the boxes,” Durham says.
Paired together, the Evosep and timsTOF fleX are powerful tools for mass spectrometry and speed up analysis of data, while allowing for the latest in high-resolution imaging of ultra-small particles. The Evosep technology is only a couple of years old and is a new way to do high throughput liquid chromatography. The timsTOF fleX provides novel imaging, for example, showing where metabolites cluster in a tissue.
The tools will be particularly helpful with Durham’s work studying the metabolism of bacteria and single-cell algae in the surface ocean.
“In the ocean ecosystem, these organisms sit at the base of the food chain. They take carbon dioxide and make it into sugars and amino acids, all the stuff that acts as food in the system,” says Durham. “With thousands of proteins and thousands of molecules, it’s the Evosep that allows us to separate them. What we want to know is how do algae regulate their metabolism? How do they control the sugars, proteins, lipids they’re making, so we can extrapolate that out to the food web?
“Also, the ocean is changing. So how is the algal metabolism going to change and how is that going to affect the food web?” Durham says.
After the manufacturer sent someone to unpack her boxes, Durham and a few volunteers started on the install, using remote instruction as needed. The unit will occasionally be used as a demo for the manufacturer, in exchange for a break on the price, Durham says.
Before the pandemic, momentum was on her side, Durham says. She had finished teaching a five-week class, gotten the lab’s undergrads trained, and her equipment had just arrived.
“We were about to get into the lab and really focus,” she says. “We were ready to go.”
Like many new faculty members, she brought projects and papers in progress with her, so one upside to the shutdown was being able to clear the decks. With less than a year at UF, she says she wasn’t sure what to expect when campus shut down.
“The support from my department and the Genetics Institute, other faculty; I found there are people here that I can kind of lean on,” Durham says. “That’s reassuring, especially being new.”
By Cindy Spence
Before it was really quite open, the University of Florida’s Nature Coast Biological Station on the Gulf of Mexico was battered by Hurricane Hermine in 2016 and Tropical Storm Michael in 2018. In 2020, a pandemic hit.
The resilient group recovered from the storms, and this summer began getting back to work with new pandemic protocols. With lab occupancy limited, the group turned to outdoors work, such as a living shoreline project using the reef prisms (pictured). Each prism weighs 100 pounds, so a paddleboard was pressed in to service to float them into position (pictured).
The living shoreline will do double duty, protecting both infrastructure and the environment.
Over time, erosion along the Cedar Key shoreline near the station left streets vulnerable to storm surge, says Mike Allen, director of the station, which is part of the UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Once the prisms are in place, sand will be brought in and vegetation planted to hold the soil. The fish population around the prisms, which are full of reef-building oyster shells, will be monitored to see if the prisms help establish aquatic habitat.
Outdoor work is limited to 10 volunteers or less and even outdoors, facial coverings are used.
Station buildings have not reopened to the public yet, and Allen has encouraged employees to continue working from home. Cedar Key, a quaint fishing village, attracts visitors from all over the state, so Allen says a little extra caution is warranted.
Allen says one major down side to the lockdown was canceling school groups and classes that use the station’s aquarium and public education facilities. UF and Santa Fe College students also use the lab to access Seahorse Key just offshore, where a number of studies are conducted on wildlife, such as horseshoe crabs and cottonmouth snakes.
Two positives, however, emerged in recent months. The station, which was approved as IFAS’ newest research center five years ago, was able to complete its five-year strategic plan and vet it with agency partners and other collaborators.
“This gave us a little bit of time to catch our breath and do things in a little more deliberate way,” Allen says. “We’re starting our second five years, so it was nice to be able to reflect on where we’ve been in the last five years and what our goals are for the next five? In that sense, it’s been good.”
Zoom, the online meeting platform, turned into another plus, reducing travel up and down the Nature Coast from Hernando to Wakulla counties.
“Our team had been traveling so much,” Allen says. “But we learned to operate without the travel, and that is going to make us so much more efficient. Instead of a one-hour meeting, two hours away, basically taking up three-quarters of the day, we can do it by Zoom and get back to our work.”
By Cindy Spence
Boone Prentice’s group in the Chemistry Lab Building began reopening in June, and like most labs, had a range of new protocols.
One new protocol – forged during the pause – has become a welcome tradition in the lab: the Friday afternoon virtual coffee break via Zoom, where everyone touches base.
“It’s just 30 minutes to get together and share a story or ideas or something that happened in the lab,” says Chelsey Mertens, a second-year Ph.D. student in the lab. “Sometimes we talk about different things from childhood, because for the international students, a lot of things here are completely different.”
The Prentice Lab uses mass spectrometry to study the molecular basis of health and disease. The goal is to visualize the distributions of drugs, metabolites, lipids and proteins in human and animal tissues to better understand and develop therapies for illnesses including infectious diseases, diabetes, cancer and opioid addiction.
The lab is a large group with a visiting student, eight graduate students and one undergrad, so working in shifts on alternating days has been the key to maintaining social distancing. Lab members are required to take their temperature at home prior to coming in to the lab, and bleach is used to disinfect surfaces.
The lab quickly embraced Zoom as a means of keeping their science in motion. One down side to the pandemic was loss of training time in the lab, so Prentice has set up digital training sessions in which students participate from the lab while Prentice is at a remote location. The group also attended the American Society for Mass Spectrometry annual conference for the first two weeks of June. Normally a one-week gathering, this one was stretched out over two via Zoom.
And Zoom made possible a summer lecture series, in which each person took a topic fundamental to their research in mass spectrometry and presented it to the group.
“The day of my lecture, my cat decides she is going to park it right on my keyboard,” Mertens says. “Some things we can’t control.”
While she’s glad to be back in the lab, Mertens noted one positive to the pause.
“I had a lot of time to really think about my research and time to think about my projects and really understand the theory behind them,” Mertens says.
By Cindy Spence
When Lauren Diepenbrock was told to shut down her lab in March, her first instinct was to grab her clean Asian citrus psyllid colonies, stow them in the back of her Jeep, and carry them home.
“It’s pretty much impossible to restart a colony of those, so they lived in my living room for several weeks,” says Diepenbrock, noting that the colony was pathogen-free. “I watched friends at other research stations lose massive amounts of colonies and plants, but we were really lucky.”
Diepenbrock works at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, a part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. She studies integrated pest management and citrus diseases – like the citrus greening project for which she needed the Asian citrus psyllids – and teaches as well.
She gained two extra collaborators (see photos) in working with the Asian citrus psyllids, an orange tabby named Oliver, and a black cat named Joey, who took it upon themselves to supervise the colonies.
Diepenbrock sent microscopes home with students and lab technicians so they could continue to work on data collection remotely. Every other week, citrus trees in a test plot are vacuumed to collect insects, which are then frozen. The sampling helps quantify the populations of insects on the trees.
The home work was serendipitous for one staff member, a biological scientist who had her baby near the beginning of the shutdown. She was able to come in and pick up boxes with thousands of frozen mealybugs and eggs that she could analyze at home, without having to worry about getting the baby sick.
“She would normally do that in the lab, but we are in a smaller space as we wait on a lab renovation, so it’s easier to have her work at home,” says Diepenbrock, who also instituted an online lab scheduling system to sign out workspace to maintain social distancing. A group chat kept things moving when people overstayed their precious time in the lab. A common text: “Hey, I need to get in there, are you done?”
Thanks to a lot of field work and the fact that rows of citrus are planted 10 feet apart, the team has been able to do physical distancing and even go without masks sometimes, a nice benefit on Florida summer days.
“We’re about to start working with growers again, and we’ll be sure to wear our masks,” Diepenbrock says.
One of her favorites shows the image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she is also well-stocked with Gator masks. Working with students via Zoom has made her more patient, she says. It took an hour online to demonstrate how to lay out a field research project, a task that would have taken minutes in person.
“I try to chill out, because they’re stressed, too,” Diepenbrock says. “And we are getting better at Zoom.”
By Cindy Spence
As a first-generation Hispanic college graduate with a degree in geology, Katherine Bermudez was excited to be finishing her master’s degree in the spring. Then, the campus shut down.
She made the best of the unscheduled downtime, creating a small business selling face masks on Etsy. This summer, however, she was glad to get back to work in the lab. Here, Bermudez – wearing a mask of her own design – is using a multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer to analyze isotopes in the enamel of human teeth to determine what ancient Floridians ate and where they came from.
Bermudez also assists regional law enforcement and forensic laboratories in Tampa Bay with processing hair and enamel samples from cold cases around Florida in an effort to generate new leads, and works with a team of scientists analyzing archaeological samples from canoes that once navigated Florida waterways.
“The privilege to perform interdisciplinary research in a top-tier research facility with cutting edge technology is very exciting and rewarding,” Bermudez says. “I may be the first female in my family to graduate from college and seek a higher-level education, but I will certainly not be the last.”
By Cindy Spence
Examining traces of an ancient supercontinent can be a momentary escape from a modern pandemic.
That’s what geology Professor Joseph Meert is doing from the Paleomagnetism Lab at UF. Using the lab’s cryogenic magnetometer (pictured), Meert can use rock cores about 1 inch high and 1 inch across to peer back in time at the effects of continental drift.
Most recently, Meert has collected samples from India, which was part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, one of the largest continental blocks in Earth’s past, spanning about 100 million square kilometers in the Paleozoic Era.
The magnetometer measures magnetic direction in rock samples, and that helps researchers determine the movement of continents – such as the Indian subcontinent, South America and Africa, which were all once part of Gondwana – and whether environmental conditions were favorable for producing certain minerals.
Recently, researchers have been surprised to find a rich record of Proterozoic-age (>550 million-year-old) igneous intrusions.
The magnetometer has its own naturally distanced workspace. Only one person at a time can use the machine.
As part of phase 2 of reopening, Meert is glad to get back to work.
“I’d say we lost double the time we were out of the lab, just because the workforce we had in here is no long available,” says Meert, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation. “I’m catching up, but this hurt.”
Among the bright spots of the shutdown was a surge in publishing, with five papers published in two months and five more out for review. Among the drawbacks was going online with a six-week summer field school in New Mexico, a capstone undergraduate course, says Meert, who is also the undergraduate coordinator for geology. While some scientists could continue remote field work, the field school would not have been possible.
“It’s a five-day drive to New Mexico in vans with 20 students, and then we either camp or stay in a ski lodge, so we’re packed together all the time,” Meert says. “Not only that, but several other universities would normally be there with us.”
In 12-14-hour workdays – from home – Meert and colleague Dr. Jim Vogl designed a geological field course that could be delivered via the internet. The fall field school also will be online.
By Cindy Spence
Dinner before data became the protocol for the Faciola Lab at the UF Dairy Unit when the pandemic pause began.
“We could no longer collect data, but we kept feeding the cows,” says Antonio Faciola, an assistant professor of livestock nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences. “It was an essential activity.”
And a big one. Faciola started the shutdown with 500 cows but sold about 100 to streamline the operation.
Now that research has resumed, Faciola’s large team – eight graduate students, two visiting students from Brazil, one postdoc and one lab technician – embarked on two new studies Monday Aug. 3. One will examine whether certain minerals in the diet have an effect on the gut health of the cows, and the other will study three types of proteins to see which is more digestible and better at promoting milk production. In September, undergraduates will rejoin the lab and assist in experiments as well.
Like other labs, Faciola’s lost time, and theses and dissertations were stalled because students could not collect the data they needed.
“Cows in lactation don’t produce milk forever, so losing four months where we couldn’t collect data on what they ate and their milk production meant a delay for those experiments, so that was our biggest issue,” Faciola says.
Starting up comes with delays, too, this time in the form of the breeding cycle. The birth of a calf is the trigger for lactation, and the cows must be lactating for Faciola’s group to study the effects of different diets on milk production and quality.
During the shutdown, lab members took turns keeping the herd fed.
“Our grad students work really hard feeding and taking care of our beloved cows,” Faciola says.
The cows chill inside an open-sided barn most of the day, cooled by fans and sprinkler systems since heat stress compromises not only current lactation but future lactation, Faciola says. They are fed and milked each day, with the excess milk sold to local co-ops that make cheese and other dairy products. While the cows wear number tags, Faciola says some have names.
“I don’t know their names, but the students do,” Faciola says. “They each have their own personality.”
Faciola grew up in Brazil on his family’s farm, where they raised cows both for meat and milk. Many of his graduate students, too, come from farming families, so they all share an understanding of the appreciation farmers have for their animals.
“The animals are not pets, but they are close to us; they allow us to work and make a living,” Faciola says.
As a student, Faciola had planned to return to his family’s farm, but research opportunities and a love of science changed his course. Today, his research is funded by the USDA, the National Science Foundation and the dairy industry.
Overall, he says the shutdown was a mixed bag. Two plusses were a surge in productivity on the academic publishing side and spending more time with his 2-year-old daughter. On the down side, he missed the face-to-face interaction with the students in his animal nutrition classes.
“Losing that personal touch has been difficult,” he says.
By Cindy Spence