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On March 18, U-M President Mark Schlissel announced that most in-person research activities across the university would ramp down by the end of the week. The move was part of the university’s broader attempts to protect its students, faculty, and staff and to limit the spread of COVID-19 as the pandemic began to worsen across the United States.

The plan allowed critical activities—including care for animals and maintenance of equipment, materials, and unique reagents—to continue, as well as research directly related to the battle against COVID-19 itself. But it left a significant portion of the university’s over 5,400 doctoral students, many of whom rely on laboratory or studio research for their dissertations, professional training, and scientific publications, with an uncertain future.

“Some of my testings were focused on evaluating the long-term stability of my devices,” says Sajal Singh, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who studies high-performance miniaturized gyroscopes. “Basically, I was testing my devices continuously for the last several months under a certain environment. Because of the pause, I had to abandon months of my work and restart.”

The research ramp-down did not occur in a vacuum, either. At the same time, many graduate students who also serve as graduate student instructors (GSIs) on a wide range of U-M courses were switching to remote teaching for the duration of the semester, as well as balancing this unprecedented shift in their work against caring for their communities, families, and themselves.

“I was less worried about my research than about quickly switching to an online format as a GSI,” Sumin Kim, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology, says. “After teaching was over, I was mainly worried about staying safe and maintaining some semblance of mental health.”

While progress on laboratory research was halted, many Rackham students were able to use the time to push ahead with other aspects of their work that often take a backseat to experiments. These included catching up on scientific literature, learning new skills and programs, planning out the course of future experiments, and writing papers and dissertations.

Joanne Beckwith, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, studies the material properties of bacterial and fungal biofilms with an eye toward developing new treatments for infections. On average, her experiments take up to two weeks to complete, and when in-person research was suspended she lost one in-progress experiment and knew that even after being allowed back to the lab it would take up to a month to prepare the next one. Even so, she found ways to continue her work in the interim.

“I was able to start some modeling work using [the simulation software] COMSOL,” Beckwith says. “I had not used the program before the pause, so it is exciting to come out of the shutdown with a new skill. I also spent much of the time writing. It was encouraging to start a few papers that I may have otherwise held off on, because now they are informing the experiments I am doing in the return.”

Back to the Lab

On June 23, U-M Vice President for Research Rebecca Cunningham announced that the university would begin to ramp up research, adapted to the new normal ushered in by COVID-19. Based on public health guidelines and the latest information about the ever-changing pandemic, this included new protocols and procedures for how labs are set up, how time in the lab is scheduled, and how many people are permitted in a lab at once, in addition to wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Like many other efforts to return to in-person business, the university is taking a phased approach to reengaging research. How and which labs return is largely at the discretion of the university’s schools and colleges, and the decisions are based on factors like how much a space is shared by different units or the ease with which it can be prepared and sanitized.

“There are new rules and protocols, and a lot of them,” says Singh. “I work in multiple labs, including the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, so I have to be careful and perform extra steps before entering each lab.”

Many students have noticed a great deal of changes to not just how their labs are set up, but to their atmosphere, as well.

“Things are much more quiet and isolated,” Hannah Baumgartner, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology, says. “There is little lab-to-lab communication, and minimal contact with lab members.”

And while many are glad to be able to pick up their research where they left off, the return to campus has presented new challenges for students. This includes the very act of getting to the lab, as many students struggle to find parking within walking distance of their buildings or must rely on public transportation, which puts them in contact with more people.

“Safe transportation to work is the biggest challenge,” Matt Sorenson, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry, says. “Collaboration and helping people while abiding by social distancing rules is also difficult.”

Students also voiced concerns over safety and logistics within the lab facilities themselves, from how rooms and equipment are scheduled and coordinated to the possibility of the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19.

The return to the lab has not been without some improvements, though. Some students have found the greater need to control how and when lab space is used has helped them improve the planning and efficiency of their experiments.

“One of the benefits has been the need to be very intentional about my experiments,” Beckwith says. “Prior to the pause, I was notorious for figuring out my experiments on the fly and tinkering with my settings until I found the exact method I wanted to use. Although this allowed for a lot of creativity and exploration, it also resulted in lots of experimental runs that would never ultimately be used. Now with limited time in the lab, I have to be very intentional, planning out my experiments in detail before going in, which has resulted in much less lost time, and publication worthy data earlier in the process.”