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COVID-19: A gradual return to campus

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The COVID-19 pandemic involved a closure of the campus. After seven weeks of almost total lockdown, the Lausanne campus and the School’s other sites have been coming back to life – subject, of course, to strict hygiene measures.

Never in 51 years has EPFL banned students from its lecture halls, emptied its offices, almost totally shut down research facilities, canceled all events and closed all catering points. It’s never done all that at the same time, and never for so long. Fifty-one days in total – from 13 March 2020 to 4 May. Everything had to be shut down in a hurry.

Little by little research has started up again, although the students are still missing. During this initial phase, only research teams that need access to lab facilities are allowed to come back. They’ve had to draw up shift plans, since only around 35% of each team is allowed on site at any one time. In the labs, researchers used to work side by side, but now people keep their distance. Teams have been divided up into two completely separate groups to reduce the risk of cross-infection and, in the worst of cases, to prevent the entire lab from having to go into self-isolation.

“For the first week that the lab was up and running again, two of us were allowed in during each time slot. The second week, we were allowed up to eight people. There are usually about 20 of us,” says Andrada Muntean, a PhD student in the Advanced Quantum Architecture Laboratory in Microcity, Neuchâtel. “I went twice and I was there on my own. It’s strange – it was so calm. I had nobody to talk to.”

“Researchers are used to sharing information with their colleagues, so the rules do have an impact,” says Sandrine Gerber, deputy head of the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering (ISIC). In her ten-person lab, people alternate full work days. In others, it’s half days. “A five-person team works from 7am to 1pm and the other does 2pm to 9pm,” explains Francisco Sarmento Mesquita, another scientist in Professor Gisou van der Goot’s unit. “That allows us to do six hours straight of full-on work, then our partner can take over and we can go back to working at home on the computer. It’s a very efficient way of doing things.”

We now only go one way in Professor Auwerx’s lab. © EPFL 2020 / Alain Herzog

Tightly controlled access to technical facilities

“We’ve adapted the restart rules for each lab,” says Prof. van der Goot, who’s the dean of the School of Life Sciences. “We looked at the guidelines and applied them based on the needs and possibilities of each lab, while also ensuring the necessary level of safety. In difficult times, it’s important to show that we can take each lab’s specific needs into account.”

In addition to the labs, the School’s tech platforms, which provide the entire EPFL community with access to cutting-edge equipment, were forced to rethink their way of working for the restart phase. One such facility is the Center of MicroNanoTechnology (CMi), which is open 24/7 and serves more than 500 users a year. Twenty percent of its users are EPFL startups, and one-third of EPFL’s laboratories call on its services. That was until 16 March, at least. Now, to go into a clean room, you need more than just a face mask, gloves and a protective suit. The hygiene measures go on for 14 pages, the entry procedure has nine steps and the exit procedure has eight. The opening hours have been shortened, and the supplies of disposable gloves and disinfectant increased.

« We’ve adapted the restart rules for each lab. We looked at the guidelines and applied them based on the needs and possibilities of each lab, while also ensuring the necessary level of safety. »

But the biggest difference is that the users must have their own suit – they can’t be shared. That means user numbers have to be limited, since the suits are hard to come by at the moment. “During the first week, the number of people was limited to 50,” says Philippe Flückiger, the CMi’s operational director. It’s has then gone up to 100, with users selected based on their use of the facility over the previous six months. “This crisis forced us to rethink how we do things,” explains Flückiger, who hopes that the CMi will soon be able to fulfill all requests.

“We had to reorganize everything”

The ISIC’s Sandrine Gerber notes, “We have 350 users with 24/7 access to our 22 self-service analytical instruments, which include the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine. They conduct 100,000 analyses a year. We had to reorganize everything.” Users have simply been banned from entering one of the NMR rooms in the BCH building. All samples are handed over to the platform’s technicians. Even though there are fewer researchers around, the waiting time for each of the three spectrometers is about two hours on average. It’s a strict protocol: researchers have to place their sample and request form in the designated area at the entrance. Afterwards, the results are added to the server in a folder named “Covid19.”

(Written in May 2020)

At the Cmi, Patrick takes care of the security of the facilities and of the people. © EPFL 2020 / Alain Herzog

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