Researchers in the Hall-Atwater labs at Wesleyan now wear gloves on both hands when opening doors. To most onlookers, that would not be a sign for concern, but to scientists familiar with the “one glove rule,” it sends a message that something is very, very wrong. The “one glove rule” dictates that researchers keep one hand glove-free when opening doors to prevent contaminating door knobs with chemicals; now, the other hand, too, might be toxic. The adjustment of that rule is just one of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected research on campus. The shut down has had far-reaching effects on both students and faculty across the academic disciplines.
“As we first started to get the information that the University was going to close during spring break, we were like, ‘Okay, in the lab we’ll practice social distancing and we set up a schedule for staggered lab hours,’” Fisk Professor of Natural Science Ishita Mukerji said. “People were still actually continuing their work, but just by themselves. But then the governor came through with the edict to shelter at home, so once that happened, we were asked to essentially shut down the labs. At that point, we ended up having to wind up projects as best we could or store materials with the hope that we’ll be able to come back to work on them.”
Professors were told that only labs performing work considered “essential” by state regulations, which includes studies involving animal care, equipment maintenance, and the preservation of samples such as cell cultures, have been allowed to continue operating. The vast majority of labs, however, have remained closed.
For undergraduates in Assistant Professor of Psychology Alexis May’s lab, a psych lab studying suicide risk detection and intervention, the nature of student work has completely changed:
“This semester we were supposed to be doing some data analysis and visualization but because of ethical concerns, the data can’t leave the lab computers,” Ori Cantwell ’22, a student in the lab explained. “At school, we would have been able to get a hands-on experience doing data analysis for real research projects, but instead, Professor May is going to have to do the analysis and send the results to us for interpretation.”
One issue most psychology labs are facing concerns data registration. It is possible for labs to share data they collect directly with students, but only if the lab has included those plans for data sharing in the official plan they submit to a university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), a committee responsible for reviewing proposed research plans.
“If a lab were to start research right now and do their IRB registration and everything like that, they could just have something in their registration that says, ‘we’re gonna share the data on a secure server,’ and they would be totally fine,” Cantwell said. “From this point going forward, psych labs are going to be okay—it’s more about what we already started before we couldn’t be on campus.”
For students whose research projects are largely computational, as those in psychology, astronomy, physics, and math typically are, transitioning to remote work is fairly easy. But for students that require access to a wet lab—labs where research requires the handling of chemicals to conduct research—remote work can pose an insurmountable challenge.
“I know some people are no longer writing theses because they needed more data to add to their thesis,” Meera Joshi ’20, an Molecular Biology & Biochemistry major in Mukerji’s lab, wrote in an email to The Argus. “I got lucky because I already had some good data from last summer but ideally I would have liked to have done more experiments too so that my thesis was more complete. The lab closures definitely affect my ability to produce a better thesis that could have been more reflective of my work. I think that’s the major disadvantage of labs shutting down, it really impacts your research progress.”
Grace Chen ’20, a chemistry major working on developing MRI contrast agents, which are substances used in medical imaging, faces a similar situation.
“I was planning on collecting a final set of data for my thesis after spring break and that was a really important set of data,” Chen said. “But at this point, I just can’t do any more research so I have to basically write up what I have so far.”
Chen emphasized how hard her research advisor has worked to help her continue her thesis after the lab’s closure.
“A lot of my data are at school, so he offered to go into the lab and find my notebook, find all the information I need, like my NMR spectra, mass spec spectra, and collect all of my data and then scan and email it to me,” Chen said.
Principal investigators—professors who head labs— have also been searching for ways to keep students engaged with science and research practices, even if they can’t be in the lab. One way professors have been doing so is by having students read and present scholarly articles related to their lab’s research during what would typically be the lab meeting time.
“Each week somebody presents a paper that talks about the things we’ve been studying,” Brynn Assignon ’20, a student in Associate Chemistry Professor Erika Taylor’s lab studying chimeric or fusion proteins, explained. “I think it’s interesting because we’re always learning something new every lab meeting and it’s not just us staring at somebody else’s results not knowing what they’re talking about because they’re doing something completely different from what you’re doing, but at the same time, it’s another layer of work to add to everything.”
As if the challenge of a semester of attempting to continue research was not enough, undergraduate students and BA/MA students soon learned that due to safety concerns, they would not be able to return to campus to conduct research over the summer.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided not to hold any programming on campus this summer,” Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Rob Rosenthal wrote in a campus-wide email to students. “Making this decision now provides sufficient time to convert programs to online offerings, when possible. It also allows staff to focus on preparing for New Student Orientation and the fall term, which we sincerely hope will take place on campus.”
Mukerji explained that the motivation for the decision stemmed from concern for students’ well-being.
“This was a campus-wide decision regarding all summer programs,” Mukerji wrote in an email to The Argus. “The primary concern was everyone’s health and safety, especially considering the residential nature of some programs and that some students would have to travel to campus.”
One of the programs required to shift to online work is the McNair Summer Research Program, which aims to equip low-income and underrepresented students with the skills needed to pursue graduate degrees.
“For McNair, we have a number of students who either don’t have projects that can be performed virtually or they have not been able to identify a research mentor who can supervise their research for the summer,” Chemistry Professor Erika Taylor, said. “One of the things we’re working on right now is developing a summer research methods course, a workshop that I could do with them, so that way they’re learning about kind of the critical skills, reading scientific literature, developing hypotheses, writing proposals and presenting findings.”
The Summer Research Program is also working to move to remote research, Mukerji explained.
“We’ve done some informal polling of faculty members to ask if they thought they could take some of their projects online,” Mukerji said. “Many of them have responded positively about that, maybe a half to two thirds. But that still suggests that there are some labs that just won’t be able to adapt.”
One of those labs is Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alison O’Neil’s chemistry lab, which uses stem cells to study proteins involved in neurodegenerative diseases like ALS.
“There’s not a lot of dry research that we do, and by ‘dry’ I mean on the computer,” O’Neil said. “I work with the genomics Institute at UCONN health and they’re closed and can’t run my samples, so I don’t have any sequencing data either. That would be a really great summer project, to really dive into that RNA-seq data and analyze it and do all the genealogy analysis. But I don’t have that data because that lab is shut down too.”
The loss of time to do research in the summer particularly affects current seniors planning to participate in the BA/MA program next year, O’Neil pointed out.
“I have some seniors that are supposed to come back and do their master’s,” O’Neil said. “They need this summer to get the research for their master’s thesis. So that student and I were talking about, okay, worst case scenario, you can’t be here. What kind of dry experiments can you do from home? What kind of data can I generate here in the lab that they could analyze at home. And so we came up with some ideas. The other idea is that they’re probably just not going to do a master’s.”
Dean of the Natural Sciences and Math Joseph Knee acknowledged the need for faculty and students to resume research on campus and offered insight into how a decision to reopen labs would be made in his email to the faculty .
“We are hoping that on-campus faculty and graduate student research may continue sometime in the summer, in some form,” Knee wrote. “There is considerable discussion within state and local governments on the timeline, and the conditions, under which we may begin to return to some degree of normalcy. We will be looking to the state for guidance on re-opening and will monitor what other institutions are doing as well.”
Mukerji also acknowledged the difficulties students are facing because of the restrictions on summer lab activities, but stressed that all decisions have been made primarily with the safety of students in mind:
“Losing the summer program will be a blow for students obviously this summer, but it’s also a blow for faculty members as well,” Mukerji said. “We all enjoy the summer for the opportunities to engage with students in different ways and the camaraderie and all of that. It’s unfortunate that we have to lose that, but circumstances are such that it’s really out of our hands and we have to do what’s going to be safe for our entire campus community.”
Sophie Wazlowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.