In 2020, as an uneasy world wrapped its arms around a future of uncertainty and risk, University of Florida researchers responded the only way they knew how: an all-hands-on-deck approach to science.
UF science historian Betty Smocovitis watched the unfolding drama from lockdown and heard colleagues on Zoom saying, “There’s a crisis; what can I do to help?”
“What we were watching is what it can look like when a planet literally coordinates its brains, and science is at the heart of it,” says Smocovitis, who researches and teaches the history of pandemics.
Scientists moved out of their labs and onto makeshift lab benches on kitchen counters and dining room tables. Anesthesiologist and inventor Samsun Lampotang built ventilators with hardware store parts. Mechanical engineer Bala Balachandar put together an international team to study how far aerosols that carry coronavirus can travel. Electrical and computer science engineer Yier Jin and colleagues in the Warren B. Nelms Institute for the Connected World developed a wristband that lets wearers know when they are too close for COVID comfort to others.
Resilient researchers found ways to keep other science in motion, too. Entomologist Lauren Diepenbrock grabbed her clean Asian citrus psyllid colonies so her work on citrus greening could continue.
“It’s pretty much impossible to restart a colony of those, so they lived in my living room for several weeks,” says Diepenbrock, who watched colleagues elsewhere lose massive amounts of colonies and plants.
“What we were watching is what it can look like when a planet literally coordinates its brains, and science is at the heart of it.”
Chemist Russ Bowers found himself shepherding his lab’s superconducting magnets, which need to be fueled weekly with liquid nitrogen and monthly with liquid helium to keep from “quenching.”
“If they're not kept cold, all the energy stored in the circuit in the magnet can heat up and you can actually damage or destroy the magnet,” Bowers says. “They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was going to make sure our magnets were filled.”
Masks became as important as beakers and pipettes, so biologist and frog researcher Ana Longo went to work making coqui frog masks from a design by her husband, an outreach coordinator at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“I made so many masks that I sent some to my family, some to my colleagues,” Longo says, “because of course, everyone needs a coqui mask.”
HiPerGator, UF’s world-class high-performance computer, got a $50 million boost from NVIDIA in the spring and kept pace with COVID and non-COVID data crunching.
The 2020 year in research set records, with UF hitting an all-time high in research awards at $900.7 million despite the two-month interruption. That UF’s research engine — ranked 16th among public universities — would keep purring was evident in the 6,000 funding proposals processed in the 2020 fiscal year, including some boosted by a special $2 million internal research fund for COVID-related projects.
Carlos Rinaldi, chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering, said students in his lab responded to the lockdown by becoming better scientists, finding new ways to conduct experiments and learning computer programming skills that will serve them throughout their careers.
“We couldn’t be in the lab, so what could we do to continue to do science?” Rinaldi says.
It turns out — in the Rinaldi lab and across campus — quite a lot.