Published: June 26, 2020 By

For approximately three months, many researchers in the College of Engineering and Applied Science have been working remotely. Now, they are gradually and safely returning to campus to continue their work in the lab. While away, researchers said they adapted quickly and overcame unique challenges, and as they return, they look forward to claiming a new normal in their labs and moving forward in their research.

Nicole Labbe
Above: Assistant Professor Nicole Labbe.
Top: Graduate students Cory Rogers and Sadie Stutzman at work in the Labbe Lab. 

Assistant Professor Nicole Labbe’s lab develops robust chemical kinetic models, using state-of-the-art theoretical methods to accurately unravel chemistry relevant to practical energy problems. These computational models, combined with various experiments, assist in unraveling how fuels operate in extreme temperature and pressure environments found in engines, turbines and rocket thrusters. Her work is used to help develop new technology to increase fuel efficiency, decrease harmful emissions and reduce dependence on non-renewable energy sources.

Below, Labbe shares about her return to research.

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

We have three students and myself returning to lab. The students are so excited. Getting back into the lab has brought back a sense of normalcy to my experimental crew.

How is your lab restarting research after two months away? What are your priorities now, and how have they shifted?

Restarting is definitely a challenge. We don’t have experiments that you can just turn on. We have been working for over three weeks now, and our system is still not 100 percent back up and running. Hopefully we’ll be back to taking data in a week. With that, we’re now over three months behind on getting data, and we’re trying to prioritize work based on deadlines and critical needs as we start to play catch-up. It will be a tough summer getting back on track.

What changes, postponements or issues did you face in your research? Were you able to do any work remotely?

My group is lucky. We are both an experimental and a theory and modeling group. With that, many of my students didn’t have much of a change other than work location. The others were remotely trained to help with modeling work that would support their experimental efforts. So while we’re behind on taking data and submitting journal articles, we were able to stay productive.

We did not have any critical employees who remained working during this time. To us, health was priority number one, so while we fell behind, it seemed like the right thing to do.

What precautions are you taking to stay safe?

We aligned our lab safety operating procedure with that of the Department of Energy national labs, which includes mandatory mask and glove wearing, maintaining six feet of distance, daily thermometer readings, lab cleaning three times per day and more. We even have guidance on how to assess the way new stressors can impact work. For example, wearing PPE all day can be a distraction and could affect safety, so I’ve asked students to periodically check in with themselves to make sure we operate our equipment safely.

What are the biggest challenges as you restart? How will you address them?

Our biggest challenges are catching up and getting one-on-one time with my students. While I’ve tried to be available as much as possible for my students, it’s still much different going over procedures via Zoom rather than teaching someone hands-on, in person.

Have you noticed any “silver linings” to your time away from campus?

The biggest silver lining was that despite our wedding being canceled, my husband and I got married on our back porch. Our family and friends couldn’t be there, but being home let us have a pseudo-extended honeymoon staycation together.  

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.