Science Doesn't Stop: How HRI worked during the pandemic

Press Release
COVID science

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Like many others acting to control the spread of COVID-19, HRI faced new challenges during the pandemic and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency stay-at-home order, which was issued March 31 and lasted through much of the spring. While the institute prioritized keeping HRI’s researchers, staff, students and community safe above all else, it also had an institutional — and in many cases, personal — mission to continue to conduct research in the face of adversity. That’s where we came up with our informal pandemic motto: “Science doesn’t stop for social distancing.”

While most employees and students were sent home to find new ways to work and study to keep safe, workers with time-sensitive lab or field work found new ways to conduct their duties safely in the lab and outdoors, said Associate Director Gail Sutton.

“We have been finding tools to enable as many people as possible to work from home,” Sutton said, “Including purchasing more computers, software, headsets and anything else to assist with remote working.” 

But some people couldn’t do their work at home, and required the use of specialized research equipment only available at HRI to do their job and to maintain the facility over the long term for scientific research. Essential workers required to come into the building worked six feet apart and called in safety crews after they left the building to ensure rooms were decontaminated. Workers stayed two to a vehicle and limited vehicle use for safety purposes. Overnight travel was prohibited.

“Lab work can’t be done at home. We can’t expect staff to take home dangerous chemicals or equipment and set up a laboratory in their homes, but the work we are doing to create time series of ecological responses to natural and human disturbances is important for planning environmental protection, habitat restoration, and managing natural resources,” said HRI Chair for Ecosystems and Modeling Dr. Paul Montagna. “So, our lab remained open during the COVID crisis; with social distancing within the lab.”

Ken Hayes, Laboratory Manager for the Coastal Ecosystem Processes Group, continued to work in the building through the pandemic, and said over seven weeks of quarantine he processed over 2,100 organic and inorganic samples — he chalked it up to fewer meetings and interruptions, and said he was happy he could continue his work — safely — through the pandemic.

“I enjoy working, being productive. I like the work I do and that is why I took the job here at TAMUCC. There are also deadlines that needed to be met for my boss (grants, papers and reports), students (data and sampling) and my own thesis work,” Hayes said.

Many of HRI’s ongoing projects depend on continuous collection of environmental data, Montagna said maintaining long-term data series is essential to helping us understand how the environment is changing and responding to weather and climatic events.

“Losing even one day of data can limit our ability to perform ecological forecasting and making future discoveries,” Montagna said.

Coastal Restoration and Conservation Chair Dr. Jennifer Pollack had her lab crew out sampling stream and river water quality in 16 tributaries from West Carancahua to the Rio Grande; monitoring oyster disease in the Mission-Aransas Estuary; and sampling oysters at project sites in St Charles and Matagorda Bay. It was essential work she said was not only important for continued research, she said,  but to allow her students to continue their education.

“Being field biologists, the seasonal patterns of marine life doesn’t stop and neither does our needs to carry out our studies,” said HRI Fisheries and Ocean Health Chair Dr. Greg Stunz, whose team also continued field sampling. “While still taking necessary and strict precautions to prevent virus spread, we are able to carry out essential research functions in both the field and laboratory.”

He said the group still went out tagging sharks, worked with citizen-scientist fishermen, and continued in the lab processing samples, all while maintaining proper social distancing.

“So far, we have been able to carry out research and laboratory operations in a very efficient yet safe manner,” Stunz said. “However, everyone will be thrilled to get this crisis behind us, where we can resume more ‘normal’ research operations.”