Researchers allowed on campus after closure

Lauren Karmo, Campus Editor

Research labs will be reopening at Oakland University for faculty members and graduate students to resume their work as announced on Sunday, May 17.

Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order No. 2020-90 allowed limited access to research facilities, roughly 50-100 researchers will be able to return to campus to continue their studies under health and safety restrictions. 

Buildings that contain research labs — such as Dodge Hall, Hannah Hall and the Math and Science Center — will be open for limited hours and cleaned regularly. The occupancy levels will be monitored and all those entering the building will be expected to perform daily symptom checks, wear masks and abide by social distancing guidelines. 

As a member of the governor’s Michigan Economic Recovery Council, I appreciate just how important it is to safely stage the re-opening of various sectors of the economy,” President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz said via email. “I am delighted that university laboratory-based research is one of the earliest sectors to be selected for return to functionality. At Oakland, our investigators have been anxious to continue their important and highly productive research activity.”

Despite labs reopening, it is suggested for those who can complete their work remotely to do so. 

“In our case, yes, it’s important to distinguish that if you can do your work remotely, if the kind of research you do can be done at home, then the executive order says to continue to do it that way,” Chief Research Officer David Stone said. “If you don’t need your lab to do your work, don’t come in to it needlessly. Again, we’re not trying to put people in harm’s way for no reason.”

In compliance with the executive order, undergraduate students will not be allowed back into research labs. 

“All the universities [in the state] agree that the way that’s written [means] no undergraduates for now, until the governor says otherwise,” Stone said. “Even though we have lots of really terrific undergrads doing lots of really important things in faculty labs, for now they can’t come back.”

This small team of researchers will be the first group welcomed back to campus since its closure in March. Aside from the rare comings and goings of individual staff or faculty members, the only groups that have been at the university are campus police and the facility maintenance team.

University officials have been expecting this executive order for some time and have been planning accordingly. According to Stone and Interim Provost Michelle Piskulich, preventative measures have been put into place, but the challenge in reopening parts of campus comes in the adjustments needed after observing what they refer to as “choke points.” 

“There’s a lot of shared equipment in the science areas and in engineering — and how we manage access to a refrigerator — that maybe houses the chemicals or experiments that the individual researchers are working on,” Piskulich said. “So we’ll at least have to make sure that we know how those flows are going to happen … This will make it a little easier for us to see how the traffic patterns work on a small scale before we have to open it up to more people.”

As officials monitor the return of researchers, they see hope for the future of OU’s programs and facilities. 

“I know that our faculty are really excited to be able to get things restarted … This is also great for our PhD and masters students who also had research in progress because they can’t graduate until they’re able to complete that research,” Piskulich said. “It’s really exciting, and I think it is something that all of us have been waiting for. It’s a little ray of sunshine in what has been — and what will continue to be — a challenging situation.”