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April 30, 2020

Coronavirus restrictions closed Canberra universities, and it's affecting industries around the world


Editor's Note: This story features RIPE team member Tory Clarke, who shares how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted her work. 

When the announcement was made to close Canberra's university campuses last month to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, it was a welcome step in the fight against infection.

The Australian National University (ANU) alone is home to thousands of students and staff, all who might have unintentionally passed on the virus while at work or study.

But the decision to close campuses posed an unexpected challenge for those who rely on laboratories and on-site equipment to conduct their research.

It did not simply halt tutorials and meetings; it paused projects that relate to a wide range of industries around Australia and the world.

Now, academics in fields such as medicine, chemistry, education and biology are scrambling to find the best ways to conduct their work from the confines of home.

And, for many of them, it is the second set back this year, after January's catastrophic hailstorm destroyed greenhouses and the projects they were housing.

'Truly heartbreaking for me as a scientist'

Biology researcher Richard Poire-Lassus from the ANU's Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) said the last month had been "very difficult" for the department.

Like many other researchers, Dr Poire-Lassus was forced to throw away experiments he had been carefully growing since being hit by the January hailstorm.

"The APPF has worked with ANU and CSIRO to relocate critical plants and experiments from the 100-plus destroyed glasshouses to our indoor infrastructure," he said.

"ANU scientists were still licking their wounds, only to be asked to discard all the plants they managed to save from the hailstorm and many more.

"This was truly heartbreaking for me as a scientist."

Material from biology experiments had to be thrown away when the ANU shut down.(Supplied)
Material from biology experiments had to be thrown away when the ANU shut down. 

Dr Poire-Lassus said that some of the research underway in early March will take up to a year to re-grow, while some will never be completed.

Nevertheless, he is supportive of the measures taken to protect the Canberra community.

"We can only praise the prompt and effective measures taken by ANU to flatten the curve, and the APPF has done everything possible to mitigate the effects of the shutdown on the plant science community," he said.

Closure impacts Ghana, Nigeria

For Dr Tory Clarke, another biologist, the impact does not simply stall her work as an early-career researcher — it will have flow-on effects that hamper the financial development of people in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria.

Focusing on a variety of crops, Dr Clarke's work aims to improve yields in a bid to accelerate financial growth for those working the land in developing nations.

"I'm part of this international project that's basically trying to engineer plants to be better at growing the food that we eat," Dr Clarke explained.

"[Our] funding stipulates that any technology that we produce will then become available to small holder farmers in countries in Africa.

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