The Disruption of Discovery: Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Research projects from Southern Utah University’s professors and students have been caught up in the world of change the COVID-19 pandemic created. 

SUU is full of students and professors conducting scientific research from biology to psychological studies, there are scientific investigations into all walks of life.

However, amidst the pandemic, the face of SUU has changed in many different ways, as classes moved to online and new hybrid courses mixed both online and in-person experiences.

When it comes to research, professors have put their research on hold, and others have had to develop creative ways to gather their data. 

It’s an ever evolving world where plans change in an instant. From struggling with sample sizes, temporarily halting their research efforts, to moving everything online, the world of a pandemic is harsh. It forces students and professors alike to show resiliency. 

The Dolly Dash

COVID-19 has made it challenging for people to gather for events, let alone participate in research studies. This situation forced researchers such as Dr. Lijie Zhou to resort to creative and safe tactics to get students involved with studies.

Zhou is an assistant professor of communication who had two papers accepted but not yet published during the school year. 

The first one is about user-generated content, how businesses can use the user content for free advertising, and figuring out what makes an ad stand out.

“People use social media, especially for the company. They are using social media like Facebook, Instagram.” Zhou said, “They encourage their customers or the public; to talk about their product.”

Zhou’s first paper was accepted right before COVID-19 guidelines were implemented. 

The second accepted paper of Zhou’s was a study on eye-tracking and company branding.

However, the revision process did not go as smoothly as the first paper. Zhou’s sample size was not big enough for the Journal of Research in Interactive Marketing, which meant more data had to be collected.

This feedback came during the Fall 2020 Semester and meant that the new data had to come from students on campus during the pandemic.

“Oh no, that’s like COVID, cause eye tracker you can’t send link on the website, you have to come,” Zhou said, “First, I check on the Institutional Review Board, make sure we can still do the in-person collection. Good news is that is possible. Second, how can we get people there?” 

Once Zhou knew he could get the data for his research, the hunt began for students to participate in the study safely.

“We strictly followed the safety guidelines for sure. We let everyone wear the gloves, and everyone wore their mask. And no more than four people in that room… But we needed more than 100 people,” said Zhou.

Zhou asked other professors for help in this endeavor. The professors who agreed to help sent out emails to students asking for participation in the experiment, but this was not enough. After waiting two weeks and only getting a few students, Zhou had a solution.

“What do we do? We borrow the dolly. And the other thing, the eye-tracker only works on the desktop,” Zhou said. “We say okay, we use the dolly, and we put all the computer stuff, the computer monitors, the main part, the keyboard, and the eye tracker on the dolly and go to people’s classes.”

However, even with this attempt at going from class to class with the instructor’s permission and grabbing student volunteers directly from lessons, there still wasn’t enough data.

“I set up the eye tracker and I just simply went to the hallway, the cafeteria, some area after the class students come out… totally don’t know who they are. I say, ‘First off, hi, I’m a professor from communication.’ They say, ‘Okay, so what,’ I say, ‘I really need your help,’” said Zhou.

Finally, through this tactic of getting random students after class, Zhou was able to get the data sample that he needed for the study to be passed and accepted.

Frozen Stars

Dr. Rhett Zollinger’s research focuses on observational astronomy. His research allows students to look at data from an observatory located in Great Basin National Park to measure the distance between stars.

This type of research is geared towards students and helping them gain experience with scientific research.

“It’s like a full project for a student within about a year,” said Zollinger, “We’re not going to win a noble prize for this research, but that’s not really the point. The point is to get somebody who has no experience with this and get them some experience.”

The purpose of this research is to help students gain a footing in the research field while they’re attending SUU in a way that’s fun or interesting for the participants.

“My focus is mostly projects that new students can do,” Zollinger said. “We’re not working with students who are planning to be physicists; they usually have to take our classes because of something else. So we’ve kind of tailored the research.”

The project teaches students to observe two stars and through measurements discover if they may be orbiting one another in a cosmic dance. Students can also observe exoplanets, which are planets in other solar systems, through this research.

While Zollinger conducts this project so that students can participate remotely, with students measuring the information sent from the observatory to them online, COVID-19 has still affected the research process.

“Normally, we would do it as a group. We would have a meeting once a week, and we would all sit in my office or some other place, and we would all hash it out together,” Zollinger said. “Then, of course, once COVID hit, we couldn’t meet as a group. It kind of killed the experience for some of the students. And so I had students who kind of dropped out.”

Zollinger’s group of students dropped once the pandemic hit, going from four to a single student during the spring semester of 2021.

When students came back from the previous fall semester, Zollinger reached out to those who were participating in the research before, but after scheduling issues, only one student could come back.

Typically, Zollinger tries to get a new group each year; however, “This year with COVID, I didn’t even bother,” said Zollinger.

COVID-19 changed many students’ and professors’ lives alike. This research, while still ongoing, was halted during the start of this pandemic; it’s been a small and slow process to get it back up for students. However, not all professors were able to continue their research.

Secluded Protector

When COVID-19 hit southern Utah, Dr. Bruce Howard put everything on hold. His classes moved online and he halted his research to protect the people closest to him.

“I was trying to protect my wife until she could get vaccinated because she has some underlying health conditions,” Howard said. “So I decided to do my classes synchronously-remote so I could still meet with my students.”

Howard is a professor of chemistry for SUU whose research focuses on the structure of molecules.  

“I work on enzymes; I’m also an x-ray crystallographer, and so I look at the structure of molecules,” Howard said. “Specifically, I focus on proteins and enzymes.”

Professor Howard maps the structure of these enzymes by using a single-crystal diffractometer, and through mapping, observes the functions of the enzymes.

“We’re interested in how these proteins function in living cells,” said Howard. “And if we can get a structure from the x-ray crystallography, then we can understand more about how they work. It helps improve our understanding of how living creatures work.” 

One of the most significant discoveries that came from this research was a mapping of a protein from the Dead Sea that was published in 2011.

“My biggest discovery with students here at SUU was when we were able to determine the atomic structure of an enzyme from a microbe that grows in the Dead Sea.” Said Howard. “After we solved the structure, we were able to analyze it and see how it related to enzymes in microbes that function at low salt concentrations.”

COVID-19 has forced many into similar situations. Whether they have underlying health conditions or are protecting someone else who may be at risk, people find themselves staying at home to protect who they deem important.

“It’s a new virus, and there’s indication that it can get into all sorts of systems in your body and cause problems kind of unpredictably,” said Howard.

Now that a vaccine is available, Howard plans to get his research up and running by September 2021.

Knowledge in the Face of Adversity

The pandemic has affected people from all walks of life differently. Some have lived their lives with some normalcy, and others have had to change their plans entirely.

This situation is the same as it relates to the research conducted at SUU. Professors such as Zhou, Zollinger, and Howard have had to change or even stop everything they were doing and are only now starting to fully begin their scientific discoveries once again.

However, one thing remains constant: professors at SUU are resilient and will always continue their pursuit of knowledge.


Story by: Skyler Jones