‘We have no ability to make concrete promises’: COVID-19’s impact on UBC’s design teams

For many UBC undergraduates, working on a design team provides valuable scientific and professional experience. But the kind of lab work many of these teams undertake is impossible while maintaining physical distancing.

Beginning March 24, UBC has curtailed on-campus research, meaning that any research not considered to be critical has been suspended. Team leaders also have to consider the safety of their team members and those they would typically interact with in the community.

According to Emma Gray, co-captain of the UBC Biomedical Engineering Student Team (BEST), much of their work involves “working directly with clients or patients with disabilities and building them assistive devices to help them tackle everyday life a little bit more easily.”

At the moment, Gray said carrying out that work is difficult or impossible, as much of the work done by UBC BEST is in support of people that are considered to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

“One of our projects, as an example, meets with an elderly woman in Point Grey,” said Gray. “So my understanding is that they’ve suspended all physical contact with her, as would be appropriate.”

“We can’t actually access any of our materials or any of our ongoing projects,” Alistair Bryan, the other co-captain of UBC BEST, added.

But given that UBC BEST members are developing expertise in biomedical engineering, they have the potential to be helpful to companies responding to the crisis.

“We’ve been reached out to by a number of groups of biomedical engineers in Vancouver about helping them with their open-source personal protective equipment and ventilator projects,” said Gray.

A specific role for UBC BEST members in these projects hasn’t been defined yet, but Bryan noted that they are continuously looking for opportunities to contribute their skills.

Other design teams are similarly having to put their current projects on hold.

As building rockets is not considered to be critical research, UBC Rocket has also lost access to its workspace.

“We do a lot of machining, a lot of welding, a lot of manufacturing, building things, testing things, blowing things up — in a safe way,” said Hubert Fortier, a member of UBC Rocket, “[so] a lot of our hands-on work, we can't do anymore for … the foreseeable future.”

Even if they were able to build rockets, they will not have their usual events to launch them at, at least in the short term.

UBC Rocket’s first launch of the year was originally scheduled for June, but Fortier said that the event was cancelled. Looking further ahead, he said there is another rocket launch in August, but its current status is “up in the air.”

Instead, to prepare for both that competition and one scheduled for December, Fortier said they “can do things to the extent of just design work on our laptops or anything that doesn’t require hands on, going to campus.”

For UBC iGEM, a design team that typically does much of their work in molecular biology lab space, the research curtailment also necessitates a drastic change of plans.

“We sort of, in the past month or so, settled on this project idea where we wanted to engineer algae to produce micronutrients for long term space travel,” said UBC iGEM Co-Director Samuel King, who noted that the project would be entirely lab based.

“We pretty much were forced to do something entirely different.”

Nonetheless, the team is looking at ways to work around the restrictions and produce a project. It might just have to be one that takes more of a computational approach.

“We still have ample time to switch things up and figure something new out,” said King.

UBC design teams also often rely on funding from both university departments and the private sector. King expressed concerns about the effect of the developing financial crisis on their ability to secure the necessary funding for their project.

“We're really worried that biotech companies, UBC departments will be a lot less willing to give us money, since they're already losing so much money as it is,” he said.

Ultimately, the ongoing uncertainty is a challenge for both collaborating with stakeholders and keeping members engaged.

“We have no ability to make concrete promises to anybody because we don’t know when we’re going to get access to our lab space again, we don’t know when we're going to get access to all of our supplies again,” Bryan said.