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The Pandemic Is Disrupting Years of Field Science

If this winter had gone as planned, Bethany Jenkins would be getting ready to board a 274-foot research vessel called Atlantis right about now to head east across the Atlantic Ocean. But everything changed when the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began to infect people worldwide and touched down on U.S. shores. In mid-March, the University of Rhode Island microbiologist received word that her team’s trip had been suspended. The future of their research project—a three-ship, multi-institution investigation of ocean ecosystems that has been over a decade in the works—is now uncertain.

But as Jenkins and her team begin to pick up the pieces, she doesn’t like considering what might have happened if the trip had gone ahead.

“The people on these ships leave their families behind,” she said. “If I’m at sea, I won’t be able to help anyone on land.” The opposite is true as well: “On these research cruises, there are four people sharing each bathroom, mates sharing a wheelhouse, professional crew in the engine room and sharing berths. If something went wrong, it would be really bad.”

As the coronavirus has spread, reaching every continent except Antarctica and infecting over half a million people, scientific institutions all around the world have shut down or suspended field research like Jenkins’, leaving many of these scientists’ work in limbo. Governments and health officials have told people to try to work from home using remote communication tools. But for the most part, field scientists can’t do that; their projects rely on gathering new information out in the world. Unfortunately, many attributes of field research—international travel, limited access to medical testing or care, long periods spent sharing close quarters—are also the very things that can help the coronavirus spread.

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