Return to research plans moving ahead under heavy scrutiny


Research on Pitt’s Oakland campus is ramping back up, but Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for Research, wants to make it clear that it never really went away.

Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor for Science Strategy and Planning, Health Sciences, who is involved in reviewing faculty plans to restart non-clinical research at the School of Medicine, said that process has been going very smoothly. In fact, as of June 18, those projects that had already started working on campus were told they could move from one-third capacity to two-thirds.

Arthur Levine, former senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences, said at the Faculty Assembly meeting on June 9 that restarting research has been somewhat of a “nightmare,” but Berg said it’s more a nightmare of complexity but not execution.

“The way things are structured, each faculty member has to write a restart plan, which includes that they’re going to follow the rules and they’ve thought through where they’re going to put their people and how many people they’re going to have at a time and any complicated situations,” Berg said.

These plans are then reviewed and signed off on by the faculty member’s department chair or dean, after which they go to Berg and Jaime Cerilli, assistant vice chancellor for Strategic Space Planning and Management, Health Sciences.

Cerilli and her team have been walking through all the research spaces to make sure that the labs are set up properly, and Berg has been reviewing all the research restart reports.

“Each one of those is simple, but I think we’ve now reviewed over 600, and on the clinical side, I think they’ve done 500 or 600,” Berg said. “It’s a nightmare just in terms of scale, … but there haven’t been any surprises; there hasn’t been any bad behavior; there hasn’t been anything other than cooperation and everybody trying their best to do the right thing. I would love to have more nightmares like this.”

While there are set rules for social distancing and how many people can be in a facility, Berg said they’ve given labs latitude in figuring out how to do this.

Communication issues

To return to campus, seven working groups focused on what was needed across the research spectrum, Rutenbar said in an email. Pitt’s Biomedical Science Tower 3 was used as a test case for restart processes, since it is a large, 10-story building with a range of departments: medical, health science, basic science, clinical, translational.

“This gave our restart team the opportunity to focus on safety needs within the building, in partnership with incoming dean of medicine,” Rutenbar said. 

It was up to deans, directors of institutes and regional campus presidents to share the information and guidelines developed by the Task Force on Research Restart with faculty and work out how they would proceed, Rutenbar said at the June 12 meeting of the Senate Research committee.

If deans needed to adjust guidance because of specific requirements of their faculty or building, it would be sent back to the specific working groups under the task force for review.

Penelope Morel, co-chair of the Senate Research committee and a professor of immunology, said some faculty are frustrated over some communication issues. Melanie Scott, an associate professor of surgery, and other Research committee members said the system of relying on people from the top to spread information to others hasn’t been completely successful.

“The hygiene of our email lists for communicating with all of the sort of relevant groups on campus is imperfect,” Rutenbar said. “I hear this more often than I’m comfortable with.”

His communications team wants to make sure the email lists are accurate and that they are reaching people in a timely manner.

Shilpa Sant, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, was on the Health Sciences Restart working group that looked at all the schools except Medicine, and she had access to all the information about restarting. She told the committee that it was frustrating that she wasn’t able to share any information outside of the working group so faculty could make decisions on their own instead of relying on guidelines. 

Rutenbar apologized for her experience and said the working groups had to be cautious about how much was shared in public. He was concerned that faculty would assume plans discussed in brainstorming sessions were set in stone and would then operate from a set of plans that later guidance would contradict.

Morel, who sat on the School of Medicine Restart Pre-Clinical subcommittee, said she agreed with Sant that in between meetings faculty weren’t given a lot of feedback on what was happening.

Other challenges

While establishing social distancing guidelines and figuring out how to follow them is the biggest issue for labs that are reopening, Berg said, “The other big challenges have been PPE and cleaning supplies and elevator access. Keeping labs clean and making sure they’re in a form that they can be cleaned frequently, and then getting supplies so they can be cleaned.”

The University decided early on to buy personal protective equipment, like masks, on a bulk scale — around a million masks, Berg said — which has made it easier to get the supplies.

“If an individual lab tried to order a couple hundred masks, most of the scientific supply houses, their response was, ‘Yeah we’ll get to you in January,’ ” he said. “If you’re placing an order for a million masks, then you get the company’s attention. And then we just have the logistical problem of making sure we know how we’re going to distribute them, because you can’t just say, ‘OK, we have a million masks available, come to the stockroom and pick yours out.’ ”

Similarly with cleaning supplies, Berg said Cerilli and her team have “worked really hard with the companies just trying to get things ordered on the appropriate scale and get them distributed and make sure that people have what they need to work safely.”

On the clinical side, Berg said much of that takes place in UPMC facilities, which were already geared up for patient care during the pandemic, and the oversight of those studies is done by institutional review boards. There was some work done to make sure UPMC and Pitt rules on social distancing and other pandemic-related issues were in agreement as much as possible.

Research still going strong

As of June 17, almost 1,500 research restart plans were under review University-wide, according to Rutenbar. They include:

  • Provost-side schools: 245 

  • Health Sciences schools: 1,196

  • Regionals: 14 

In addition, about 1,500 faculty and staff — roughly one-eighth of Pitt’s whole research enterprise — kept working on campus through the shutdowns.

As of June 1, research both on and off campus included 4,190 active awards held by 1,805 unique primary investigators, for a total sponsor award amount of $3.6 billion (spread across multiple years).

Since March 19, there have been 824 research proposals submitted by 582 primary investigators at Pitt, for a total requested amount of $667.8 million.

In these past few months, 62 existing research projects were modified to address COVID-19, and since March 19, 174 new COVID-related proposals have been submitted, of which 18 percent have already been awarded.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294. Reporter Donovan Harrell also contributed to this report.


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