Coronavirus: Roadblock to turfgrass research?

University courses can continue online, but what will happen to research? Professors discuss the impacts they foresee and how they intend to navigate the new circumstances.


Filed to: Coronavirus

Michigan State turfgrass research
Field research on pre-emergence herbicides was underway Wednesday, March 18, at the Hancock Turfgrass Research Center at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Photo by Thom Nikolai

As the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic has become apparent, universities across the U.S. have instituted a variety of measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as transitioning to online classes, closing dormitories and dining halls, and requiring most faculty and staff to work from home. As of March 17, the story is generally the same, with slight variations from campus to campus.

Most — if not all — U.S. universities have switched to online classes. The one thing that varies is the possible end date. Among prominent turfgrass universities, Penn State and the University of Connecticut are holding online classes until April 6, and the University of Maryland will be online “at least until April 10.” The University of Arkansas, the University of Missouri, Michigan State University, Kansas State University and Texas A&M are providing online learning until the end of their spring semesters.

Classes may go on, but commencement exercises and turfgrass meetings are being delayed, and internships may be postponed or canceled as golf courses temporarily close and travel becomes more difficult. And what about research?

Outside of the usual concerns about the weather, a number of variables affect research projects, such as the availability of personnel (often students) and funding, and access to labs, fieldwork facilities and libraries. For many university researchers, a primary concern since the emergence of coronavirus has been whether anyone will be available to carry out the research. For instance, most undergraduate students at Penn State and Michigan State have returned to their primary residences, while at Mizzou and Arkansas, residence halls and dining facilities are still open.

Fieldwork = more feasible

Mike Richardson, Ph.D., at the University of Arkansas, says, “Our staff and grad students are primarily housed at the research farm and can maintain appropriate distances from each other and others. Unless things get critically worse, we should be able to continue with business as usual. Where it might hurt us a bit is at the end of this semester, when things get much busier, as we depend a lot on undergraduate student labor for plot maintenance and data collection.”

Xi Xiong, Ph.D., at the University of Missouri, says the school has 27 acres devoted to turfgrass research, and two undergraduate students help keep up with the mowing, particularly in summer. The 40 acres dedicated to turfgrass research at Michigan State are currently maintained by four employees, but Thom Nikolai, Ph.D., says that without mowing, the grass will be destroyed. And at Penn State, John Kaminski, Ph.D., says that if employees and students are sent home, field research plots will be lost.

Ben McGraw, Ph.D., also at Penn State, points out that, “We are up against an earlier-than-normal spring, which could cause fieldwork to start three weeks earlier, but we should have several weeks before it will be impacted in a significant manner. I would imagine if we are quarantined for more than four weeks, then things will be impacted greatly.”

Both Xiong and Nikolai agree that, with basic maintenance assured, the research can continue, albeit at a slower pace. Nikolai says that, if necessary, he would continue the fieldwork alone, although that might mean the number of projects would be drastically reduced — “from 20 studies to five.”

The researchers also think that fieldwork, unlike lab work, should not be a problem in terms of COVID-19 contagion given the outdoor setting and the ease of maintaining far greater than a 6-foot distance between individuals. At the University of Missouri, even the greenhouses can be used, because they have separate sections for different projects, so individuals in the greenhouse are essentially in different rooms.

McGraw is looking at research plots from a slightly different angle, because much of his work is done on golf courses. “At the moment, I foresee being able to get on courses and do research, however, I will probably be doing it solo. ... So, the biggest impact on me is not doing the preliminary fieldwork for studies that would be conducted in 2021, but rather focus all our energy on completing ... grants and company trials. Most courses are closed except for maintenance. ... As far as I know, I can get on the courses I work with, but those are all private clubs. ... The big thing would be if there are mandated curfews affecting access to courses. I think we may be fine since we are working in small groups of people in the outdoors.”

An inside job

Working in an office or a lab presents different challenges, as students and professors may not even have access to the labs, and, if they do, only a limited number of people could work in a lab at the same time, says Xiong, who wants all faculty, staff and students to take necessary precautions.

Kaminski agrees that grad students could continue experiments in the lab, although likely at a slower pace, and research projects may not be completed as scheduled. His main concern is the impact of these delays on graduate students — will a student lose months of lab work or fieldwork, thereby adding a year to their graduate studies? In the meantime, says Kaminski, he expects that some established researchers may now be able to write papers that they have in the past pushed aside because of a lack of time.

Texas A&M has posted advice and information for researchers, suggesting that they scale back or implement alternative work schedules, try to work remotely, make sure than no more than 10 people are in a lab at one time, and observe the university’s ban on travel — even to local or regional research sites that are off-campus.

Show me the money

Funding is essential, and it’s not yet clear how research grants might be affected. Some professors are currently writing grants for submission this spring, but will those grants be processed in a timely manner if the granting agencies are not fully staffed or are closed altogether? The National Science Foundation has extended some deadlines to help applicants affected by disruptions in their schedules.

The turfgrass industry also provides considerable funding for research. It’s yet unknown how a downturn in the economy would affect funding of turfgrass research.

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has produced multiple roadblocks on the path to a successful research season in 2020, and university professors are cautiously and prudently attempting to overcome these obstacles in order to help students complete their studies. These efforts are noble, but, as Nikolai points out, two factors are involved: health and economics. And the universities (and their students and employees) will do better if health is the primary consideration.

Teresa Carson is GCM’s science editor.