April 16, 2020

How physical distancing impacts lab work at InnoTech Alberta

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

To say that COVID-19 has dramatically reorganized the world is an understatement.

The health crisis has upended social, economic and political norms, and the true extent of the current upheaval won’t be fully understood for months. However, in the midst of turmoil, people in Alberta and around the world are continuing their work, even when it is far from “business as usual.”

At Alberta Innovates and InnoTech Alberta, researchers and technicians work to help keep the province’s economic engine running despite physical distancing requirements that make lab-based research uniquely challenging.

As the applied research subsidiary of Alberta Innovates, InnoTech operates more than a million square feet of lab space as well a 600-acre research farm. The organization’s 240 employees test and validate new technologies for clients in agriculture, forestry, oil and gas extraction, bioindustry and other sectors essential to Alberta’s economy. Chris Kearney, InnoTech’s Executive Director for Corporate Operations and Services, points out that InnoTech plays a vital role in supporting the economy.

“The work that we undertake is very key to our clients for them to move forward, so we must keep going to allow them to continue to work. We stimulate economic growth through what our clients are trying to do, both in the traditional industries as well as in some of the emerging ones,” Kearney says. InnoTech’s clients range from start-ups attempting to bring new technologies to market to large multinationals looking to improve their operations, and in many cases their work needs to continue. In other cases, clients are working on projects directly related to COVID-19, such as developing new methods to produce protective equipment. 

While many of the staff at Alberta Innovates are now working from home, the lab-based work at InnoTech requires technologists to be on site to complete their experiments. But completing experiments safely, in a way that reduces the risk of disease transmission, means changing how the facilities operate. Technologists and researchers typically work collaboratively in both the labs and offices. However, at InnoTech’s main facility, located in the Edmonton Research Park, new physical distancing measures have had a dramatic impact, as staff now work in shifts to limit the number of people and ensure two metres of space between everyone.

Carla Lloyd has been a research technologist at InnoTech for 20 years, and currently works in the hydrocarbons processing group which supports the province’s oil and gas industry. While lab work can sometimes be a solitary pursuit, Carla says that the new physical distancing measures have had a dramatic impact on her work. “It’s very difficult to work in teams of two, because you have to make sure that you’re properly spaced apart,” she says.

The massive facility, normally buzzing with the activity of staff from both InnoTech and Alberta Innovates, is largely empty. “It’s very quiet,” Carla says. “There are around 300 employees in this building at any given time on a normal day, but now there might be 10 per cent of that. Sometimes the lights stay off in the halls. It’s different.” Collaboration within groups is also challenging, since employees who don’t require laboratory access are working from home, and may not be readily able to answer questions or provide feedback. The same situation is also being played out at InnoTech’s other facilities in Vegreville, Devon and Calgary.

Despite the challenges, InnoTech’s staff remain passionate about their projects and ensuring these stay on track during this unprecedented time.

“We’re showing that we’re capable of working through this. We are banding together as a team to keep things moving. Things are still being driven by our clients, and we are still delivering fantastic work to them,” Carla says.

That’s hope for the whole province and will be essential in re-energizing the economy as the world recalibrates.