Published: June 29, 2020

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.

Aju Jugessur, director of the Colorado Shared Instrumentation in Nanofabrication and Characterization (COSINC) Facility, shares the outlook from his labs.

 Tomoko Matsuo works at machine.
Tomoko Borsa, facility manager for the COSINC Characterization Facility, uses an instrument as the facility slowly resumes research activities.

How many people are currently back to work in your labs? What’s the general mood about returning?

Four of our staff have returned, and the approach currently is that only their presence is needed onsite; otherwise, working remotely continues. We are excited to return and we are following the campus safety guidelines, including the specific ones that have been developed for our center. Initially, we were all nervous, but we have now adjusted well, and wearing PPE and adhering to the safety guidelines is our new normal, perhaps for a very long time.

How is your lab restarting research after several months away? What are your priorities now?

There is no doubt that there were several delays on some critical projects. However, most of them were able to obtain deadline extensions, in particular, the ones with project funding deadlines. 

During the remote work, we were able to prepare and work on several research proposals that will benefit our facilities. We were able to develop several webinars in collaboration with our instrument vendors that were offered to our user community. It was also a time to review our facility policies, reach out to prospective industry partners and update our website. 

During the two-and-a-half months that we were away, we had to turn down most of our instrumentation, as no staff would be onsite to monitor any issues. When we returned, we had to bring the instrumentation back up again, which took almost a week. In the ramping-up process, a couple of our instruments needed some repairs due to not being in use for several weeks.

While we were away, we were planning for our return by developing the safety guidelines that will enable our users and staff to work safely in our facilities. After several consultations and discussion with similar facilities across the U.S. and receiving the campus directions, we have developed a specific set of guidelines for our own center that ensures the safety of our users and staff is the priority. 

In addition, we have also designed some features of social distancing on our instrument scheduling system by taking into account the room occupancy limit, which is only one person at a time, and the air changes per hour in every room. Moreover, we have designed a mobile remote training system that consists of remote connection to the instrument and live video feed where our staff can train users in real-time. Our operations during this pandemic have surely changed as our staff are doing more of the user sample processing to maintain a limit on users present onsite, but this has impacted the throughput. As we ramp up our operations, we will need to be more creative on how we may allow more users to come in and use our facilities.

What precautions are you taking to stay safe? 

We have developed a list of precautions and guidelines that each user has to review and sign before access is provided. The main ones are quite generic such as wash hands, wear a mask and wipe down instruments after every use.

In addition to the steps that campus has recommended, we have also obtained data on air changes per hour in each of the rooms in COSINC. The air changes per hour is basically the number of times fresh air is pulled from outside to replace the air in the space, which is not recycled air. In COSINC facilities, the ACH varies from two to 20 air changes per hour, with the highest being in our cleanroom facility. The higher the ACH, the better it is in flushing out airborne contaminants. We have used data on the recommended ACH from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on this, we have designed the buffer time needed between instrument bookings or new users entering the rooms. In some cases, the wait times between users accessing the rooms can be up to two to three hours. In combination with the mandatory need to wear PPE, wash hands, and maintain social distancing, the additional buffer time implemented for user access will keep our staff and users safer.

We also have implemented a QR code system at each of our facilities' main entrances. Each user and staff are required to scan in and out of the lab rooms and spaces using their mobile device during every visit. This ensures that we have a record of user information and the actual times they spend in our facilities, and the data will become useful when there is a need to track and trace if there is an infection.

What are the biggest challenges and successes as you restart?

The biggest challenge is to ensure that all the new safety procedures developed will work. We have never operated in this mode. COSINC is a shared facility, with users coming to our facilities from all across campus and the greater Denver area. As we operate over the next few weeks, we need to monitor how well the safety guidelines are working and ensure that all users are adhering to these guidelines. 

The other challenge is to balance the need for allowing more users to come in with the safety of our users and staff. Our approach is to make the necessary adjustments as the situation evolves and, at times, we will need to make changes on the fly.

I think that our team came out stronger after our time away from campus as we were communicating and listening to each other more often about the challenges of operating our facilities during this pandemic, including any personal issues that we were facing. 

We have also realized that we can develop technologies that will allow us to train and advise users remotely and, in some cases, operate the instrumentation as well. Due to this shutdown, we now have developed some basic technologies where we can remotely guide users in real time on the operation of various instruments. In addition, we are considering further developing and implementing more advanced technologies to enable remote training and instrument operation in real time.