Service under siege: How the CEST overcame COVID-19 to support research across campus


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In early January 2020, Jeremy Fein arrived back to campus after spending time in Wuhan, China to teach a short course and visit research collaborators. At that point, the coronavirus was on the periphery of public awareness in the U.S., and Fein was sharing what he knew about the new illness with his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Science and Technology (CEST), one of Notre Dame’s 40 core facilities.

“It was a different time,” said Fein, director of CEST and professor of civil and environmental engineering and Earth sciences. “I remember calling the Wellness Center and asking about getting tested, but it was so early on there weren’t tests available. Plus, I never exhibited symptoms.”

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At the top of the page is graduate student Brittni Bertolet works in the Center for Environmental Science and Technology (CEST). Above, research technician Ursula Mahl work on research at CEST. (Photos by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

By March, the pandemic took a foothold at Notre Dame and most in-person activity was paused for departments and units, including CEST. As a result of a state-wide travel ban and other COVID-19 related concerns, research operations for labs and studios were suspended for a number of weeks, requiring many faculty members to put their life-long work on pause. 

Notre Dame came up with a plan to gradually ramp up research operations by allowing only a limited number of people to operate essential facilities and spaces. CEST was among those essential services. But reopening core facility services was easier said than done.

“The availability of CEST and other service facilities is really important for supporting research and education. Notre Dame did a great job navigating the process of getting labs back to operating,” Fein said. “It was a lot of paperwork and creating of protocols on our end, but it was so important to show that we were capable of keeping people safe.”

Typically, CEST serves about 200 facility users per year in the fields of environmental science and engineering and chemical analysis. In total, the facility sees more than 2,000 total uses of their 28 instruments by graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and research staff. On an average day, that could mean up to 15 visitors.

As part of their reopening plan, CEST Laboratory Manager Jon Loftus had to think through how instruments were spaced, how that could affect safety protocols and usage needs and how staff could continue to safely train and work with facility users. 

As if the limitations of the pandemic were not enough, CEST faced another challenge: moving.

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CEST serves researchers who student in the fields of environmental science, engineering and chemical analysis. Above, CEST Laboratory Manager Jon Lotus checks out their equipment.

“Long before any of this – back in July 2019 – our facility was notified that we would be moving to new spaces in 2020,” said Loftus. “When the pandemic hit, the CEST staff was already working diligently to plan the move without disrupting research programs, but this presented another hurdle.”

The move of a core facility like CEST is complicated. Unlike how someone would shut down a computer, unplug it and then move it, nearly half of CEST’s instruments require special attention during shutdown and startup processes. This includes a recalibration of equipment and visits from external specialized technicians before equipment is available for use. Although the move had been previously planned, CEST staff members had to rework the organization of their highly-trafficked equipment to account for social distancing and disinfection protocols.

With contractor occupancy requirements for construction of the new space and gaining permission from the University for required external technician visits, it took more than a month to get all 28 CEST instruments moved and available for use. 

In the end, CEST was successful in getting every instrument up and running by the time research began to ramp up in early June 2020.

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The CEST Facility moved to B21A Fitzpatrick Hall of Engineering in May 2020.

“We are grateful that the move and the limitations of the pandemic haven't negatively impacted our users' access to CEST equipment so that they can continue their work. After all, our primary goal is to ensure they have access to the analysis tools they need,” Loftus said. “One of the best parts of my job is watching a graduate student go from initial instrument training to, by third or fourth year, running experiments. It wouldn’t have been possible without our entire CEST team, including Dana Biasatti and Mike Brueseke.”

The Center for Environmental Science and Technology fosters interdisciplinary environmental research and education by providing cutting-edge analytical technologies needed to address national and international problems. CEST supports interdisciplinary environmental education, research and stewardship through a variety of education and outreach activities.