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Select staff return to campus under Level 3

Wednesday 6 May 2020 9:46pm

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The autumn leaves had begun to take over Botany vehicles with no use during Level 4.

Associate Professor Paul Guy might have been the only one using less soap during lockdown than during his normal day-to-day life.

Dr Guy, of the Department of Botany, can usually be found inoculating plants in the University glasshouse with plant viruses, which while harmless to humans, means he has to wash his hands every five minutes to minimise cross-contamination.

He is part of the group of Otago staff members and postgraduate students who were allowed to return to campus to work under Level 3.

Now Dr Guy is back on campus he is helping one of his honours students reboot her research project on endophytes (organisms that live between living plant cells) and viruses in native grasses.

He says the return to campus comes with anxiety, but it also feels wonderful to expand his “tiny bubble”.

“The fieldtrip we did on Friday may have been the safest ever with very few cars on the road.”

Another member of the Botany Department, Senior Technical Officer Pam Cornes, who also acts as the Departmental Health and Safety Officer and Compliance/Lab Manager, has a work bubble comprised of her technical team – Susan Mackenzie, Rebecca Macdonald and Toni Renalson.

"Together we have put in place measures to ensure a safe working environment for our returning researchers comprising mostly postgraduates but some honours students who need to complete projects in order to submit their thesis."

“Together we have put in place measures to ensure a safe working environment for our returning researchers comprising mostly postgraduates but some honours students who need to complete projects in order to submit their thesis.”

First the team set up Contact Tracing Registers and sanitising procedures in all of the many Botany buildings, glasshouses, and fieldwork vehicles. They then sanitised all the places they had touched before leaving a building.

“It was very disconcerting going into the building after being away for five weeks working at home, I personally have not ventured out very much at all, it makes you very aware of how many shared surfaces you touch throughout the day out in the public domain,” she says.

Nine copies of Contract Tracing Registers were distributed throughout the Department, along with signs indicating the capacity of rooms.

“We are so lucky working with scientists who realise the importance of the health and safety regulations being imposed currently.

“For example on entry you must sign the register, then put your outer clothing into a plastic bag, then make sure your phone is connected to the WiFi and put it into another ziplock bag to carry with you at all times. You must hand sanitise and enter the lab taking with you another bag to put your lab coat into once you have finished work.”

Along with her usual tasks, as Departmental Health and Safety Officer (DHSO), she is also assisting others with their applications to gain access to the Department again, but she is not alone in this new role.

“I have Zoomed my DHSO colleagues and we all check in to advise one another, we even had a zoom ‘happy hour’ one Friday afternoon to try and relax and chat about the different problems we are encountering, it is good to talk and work through these novel circumstances.”

"It’s very quiet on campus and it seems like there are many more birds in the trees, which is very nice!"

Across campus staff are also returning to the Geology Department.

Dr Rosie Cole, a postdoctoral fellow, is working on project with a team to build a lab-scale volcano feeding system to investigate how different rock wall properties affect magma flow.

The team is in the construction phase of their experimental programme, with their immediate task upon returning to campus to build a prototype version to test before scaling up to their full-size model.

“It’s very quiet on campus and it seems like there are many more birds in the trees, which is very nice!”

Protocols have also changed inside the Geology Department.

There are is hand sanitiser at the doors and staff are wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including lab coats and gloves, keeping a record of which rooms they enter and who they interact with, and disinfecting all surfaces and tools after they finish working.

“We are keeping our distance within our work bubbles and from other bubbles, and there is a one-way system for walking around the department,” Dr Cole says.

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Dr Gemma Kerr getting back to work in the Geology Department.

Another member of the Geology Department, Dr Gemma Kerr, also returned to work when the country moved to Level 3.

She is a research staff member and X-Ray Lab Technician and has been working with the Geology DHSO to prepare the department for everyone who needs to be there through Level 3.

They got their research laboratories back up and running, establishing contract tracing protocols and organising PPE. As well as cleaning, lots of cleaning, she says.

Now she is back in the geochemistry and environmental geology labs providing technical support to staff and postgraduate students, as well as catching up on her own applied geochemistry research.

"After 33 days at home it’s quite a surreal experience. It’s definitely strange seeing the campus so deserted, but it feels nice to be back at work and interacting with our people (at a >2m spacing, of course!)."

The department is still quiet, but Dr Kerr does not expect anything to feel the same until all the students have returned to campus.

“After 33 days at home it’s quite a surreal experience. It’s definitely strange seeing the campus so deserted, but it feels nice to be back at work and interacting with our people (at a >2m spacing, of course!)”

The Dunedin campus is not alone in staff and postgraduate students returning to campus.

Evie Templeton, a PhD candidate working with the Christchurch Heart Institute, has her thesis due in a few months.

She is back on campus getting stuck into her experimental work in order to pull it together on time.

She is preparing kidney tissue samples to run on a mass spectrometer, so that she can analyse the proteins and identify markers of kidney injury in heart failure.

“I was absolutely thrilled to be able to return back to campus under Level 3, first of all due to the time crunch I am under for my thesis, but also because it is a real morale boost to get to leave my one-bedroom apartment and extend my bubble slightly!”

It’s a lot quieter than usual in Christchurch, with empty corridors and zero watercooler chat but Evie is glad to be back.

“I have really missed face-to-face social interaction. This whole lockdown has really made me appreciate being back on campus - we have such a great place to work with wonderful people.”

Other students have also been able to return to campus with a limited study space set up at the Marsh Study Centre for students who are flatting.