Published: June 22, 2020 By

Tobias Niederwieser and Alexander Hoehn in a BioServe laboratory with five FRDIGE units slated for delivery to NASA and the International Space Station. Tobias Niederwieser and Alexander Hoehn in a BioServe laboratory with five FRIDGE units slated for delivery to NASA and the International Space Station. Two of the units shipped to the space agency Thursday, June 18.

BioServe Space Technologies shares insights from three months of research largely alone on campus

After large portions of the University of Colorado Boulder shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, you could practically hear a pin drop on campus. But in the Aerospace Building, an array of space-critical research projects at BioServe Space Technologies has continued.

BioServe designs, builds and operates life-science equipment and experiments for NASA and private space contractors used on the International Space Station. With rocket launches still on the calendar, the center’s work had to go on even as much of campus shuttered.

“Very early on, NASA sent notice that all work associated with launches and the ISS was to be considered mission essential/critical and due dates would not be changing,” said Stefanie Countryman, director of BioServe.

Their workers have been on the forefront of health and safety changes implemented by CU Boulder, requiring on-campus employees to use personal protective equipment, follow new safety procedures, and maintain strict social distancing. They say patience and flexibility will be essential for other researchers as modified activities resume on campus.

"The pace of some things is slower because on-site capacity is reduced," said Matt Vellone, a BioServe payload engineer. “Work needs to be planned differently in order to still get multiple projects moving forward. Since external deadlines haven't been relaxed, there's more multitasking and nontraditional scheduling."

Vellone and others in BioServe emphasized work time flexibility – "early mornings, later evenings, weekends" – for hitting deadlines. The inability to gather and work in groups has required people to come in at odd hours. Although not ideal, their team has been understanding.

The end of in-person meetings has been a double-edged sword.

"Communication is not the same. You can focus more on your work, but it's not conducive to hallway discussions and impromptu meetings that often end up being incredibly helpful to identifying issues and solving them throughout the day," Countryman said.

BioServe Senior Research Associate Alexander Hoehn agreed.

"Communication is less efficient. There’s a lack of ad-hoc hallway coordination, but the quiet has also been great for productivity – there’s less nuisance and interruption. It's definitely a less stressful and more productive environment," Hoehn said.

Countryman emphasized the importance of scheduling online video meetings to bridge the discussion gap.

"Video conferencing as opposed to teleconferencing makes a big difference. I didn’t realize how much until I got a video camera,” Countryman said. “Even if it is only online, seeing someone’s face goes a long way to feeling like you are all still part of a team.”

CU Boulder is in the midst of a phased return to on-campus research and creative work in summer 2020. In this series, CU Engineering researchers share tips, tricks and takeaways as they navigate a new approach to research prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.