May 19, 2020

VUMC Research Enterprise begins ramping up

As Nashville cautiously begins to emerge from its two-month-long COVID-19 Safer at Home response, so too are the labs and facilities at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.


by Bill Snyder

As Nashville cautiously begins to emerge from its two-month-long COVID-19 Safer at Home response, so too are the labs and facilities at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Bolstered by more than $600 million a year in government, corporate and foundation support, the thousands of biomedical scientists who make up VUMC’s Research Enterprise are pushing forward the frontiers of new knowledge and treatments for everything from cancer, heart disease and diabetes to brain disorders and infectious diseases.

When COVID-19 struck Nashville in early March, many research labs ramped down with their members maintaining essential functions and mainly working from home as best they could, while some lab- and clinic-based investigations focused on COVID-19 research ramped up, catalyzing many collaborations across the Medical Center.

Now, with Nashville embarking on Phase I of its “roadmap to reopening,” so has the VUMC Research Enterprise.

“In Phase 1, we are not on a speedway. This is not business as usual,” said Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, VUMC’s Executive Vice President for Research, during last week’s online Town Hall on the Phase I research “ramp up” that was attended by more than 400 people.

“We’ve been doing a lot of planning about how we ramp back up in a way that is safe for our employees, our trainees and, most importantly, those we serve — our patients,” said Pietenpol, also the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology and director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Planning for the ramp up has been a prodigious undertaking, considering the fact that 40% of the 3,100 faculty members in the School of Medicine participate in research. Of the 2,500 “sponsored” VUMC projects currently supported by outside sources including the federal government, 1,600 are clinical studies involving human participants.

Details about the Phase I ramp-up can be found on the Office of Research website at under “Contingency and Continuity Planning.”

How long Phase I lasts “will depend on effectively maintaining the safety of all research personnel on site, as well as what we see in the health care system and our community,” said Susan Meyn, senior director of the Office of Research.

“Our hope is that by practicing the measures we have set in place that we will be able to safely progress through the phases,” Meyn said.

However, if COVID-19 infections and/or admissions spike, “we have to be just as nimble to rapidly pivot and reduce our research activities,” Pietenpol cautioned. “It could happen very quickly. I hope not, but we all have to be prepared.”

Other participants in last week’s Town Hall were:

  • Gordon Bernard, MD, Executive Vice President for Research;
  • Lori Rolando, MD, MPH, director of Occupational Health;
  • Russell Rothman, MD, Senior Vice President, Population and Public Health;
  • Jeanne Wallace, DVM, Vice President Animal Care; and
  • Kevin Warren, MS, CHMM, senior director of Environmental Health and Safety.


 This is what Phase I looks like for the Research Enterprise


  • As with the rest of the medical center, requirements for strict social distancing and universal COVID-19 precautions remain in place. Employees must monitor themselves for COVID-19 symptoms, wash their hands frequently and wear cloth facemasks in all public areas, including the research cores and animal facilities.
  • Working from home is still strongly encouraged, especially for employees 65 or older and those who otherwise are at high risk for infection. Meetings, lectures and seminars should be held on-line whenever possible. So should most administrative duties and “dry lab” studies, for example, those involving epidemiology and health services research.
  • For those who must come into the lab, stagger shifts or alternate workdays to minimize contact. Turn conference rooms, break rooms and lounge areas into spread-out workspaces. Shared spaces and supplies should be disinfected before and after use. Researchers may need to provide their own personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Gatherings of up to 10 people are permitted if physical distancing of 6 feet or greater can be achieved. Rooms, including laboratories, may be occupied up to 50% capacity if physical distancing can be maintained. However, Vanderbilt graduate students must abide by University policy and can only work in areas that limit capacity to 33%.
  • Re-opening clinical studies will require approval by the department chair, civision chief and patient care center director.
  • COVID-19 related projects will be given priority by clinics, cores and laboratories that have limited space and staffing constraints.
  • Most summer research programs for high school, undergraduate and new international students have been canceled. Medical students in summer programs as part of their course work may continue as long as they can work remotely and don’t interrupt direct patient care. Contact Medical Center Relations at for more information.
  • Changes in research protocols, for example, that require study participants to be tested for COVID-19, must be reported to the institutional review board (IRB) but can continue without waiting for IRB approval.

For more details, go to