Starting Oct. 12, the University of Michigan will allow all undergraduate students to return to in-person research and scholarship, according to an email update sent to the research community from Rebecca Cunningham, vice president of research at the University. 

Previously, the undergraduate research policy only granted seniors with prior research experience to return to an in-person lab setting. This new policy, however, will expand the previous guidelines to allow all undergraduates — including those with no research experience — to engage in in-person research.

“Recognizing that our research productivity is not yet back to 100 percent, this next phase will allow for increased laboratory density, an expansion of human research participants and increased access for undergraduate researchers, who play a critical role in our research mission,” Cunningham wrote. 

This new policy will also allow labs to increase the capacity from 45 to 60 percent as long as social distancing and face covering guidelines are maintained on any given shift. Cunningham underscored the importance of continual monitoring of virus transmission as this new policy is put in place.

“Research leadership will continuously monitor virus transmission rates over the next 4-6 weeks to ensure our research community can safely maintain this expansion,” Cunningham wrote. “The health and safety of our research community will remain our top priority.” 

As of Sept. 29, nine total researchers have tested positive for COVID-19 since May 21, according to the email update. Based on contact tracing of asymptomatic individuals where a fellow lab member has tested positive, no sign of virus transmission has taken place in research settings.

LSA sophomore Kylie Schache conducts research in two labs — a microbiology lab and an Alzheimer’s lab. She said though this policy will technically allow her to return to in-person research, the capacity limits will still prioritize the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in her lab. 

“If the option were open for me to work in person, I would certainly take it,” Schache said. “Right now, the issue is letting undergraduates return to research labs would take time slots away from graduate students or postdoc researchers because of the capacity limits. And so, I understand they have seniority, since it’s their full-time job to do research.”

Schache noted that even if she were to return, she would not have concerns with safety or spreading COVID-19, given that many of the procedures within research settings already account for cleanliness and sanitation. 

“If there was a way that I could return to in-person work, I wouldn’t have any concerns in terms of safety regarding the virus just because labs are under so many safety restrictions normally, since we work with dangerous chemicals and what not,” Schache said. “The safety regulations in place right now especially — I mean they’re maintaining distance very strictly, they’re keeping limits on how many people can be in the same space, PPE (personal protective equipment) guidelines are followed very closely, so I won’t be concerned about returning from that standpoint.”

LSA sophomore Nicholas Cemalovic shared similar sentiments in that graduate students are often prioritized when assigning shifts, since they depend on the research setting for their degrees. Cemalovic said he is involved in an environmental toxicology lab with the School of Public Health. 

“I also understand that every year, there are new grad students rotating and there’s graduate students who need to get their degrees by being in there, so I understand the hierarchy, but I think introducing undergrads slowly would be great,” Cemalovic said.

Back in March, when Cemalovic had to transition into a remote research setting, he said he found other ways to stay engaged with the research community, despite not being able to return to in-person work.

“I found a way to transition into research in a different way,” Cemalovic said. “I found a lot of different methods that I could still be active. So, during that first bit of quarantine, I was still going to talks and lectures, I was doing a little bit of literature review. A good thing about a lot of wet lab biomedical research is that there’s always data being produced, so there’s always data to be analyzed.”

As undergraduate students transition to the in-person setting, Cemalovic hopes students are well-trained with the practical safety guidelines that often mirror the very work they are learning to do.

“I couldn’t think of a better group of individuals to be prepared for this than people who are trained in handling biohazardous waste and working on having sterile and non-contaminated environments,” Cemalovic said. “I think that the environment would be safe as long as students are trained well. I know there’s lots of mandatory modules that students can do, and there’s lots of good practices that can be taught to undergrads so they’re limiting their risk and not perturbing the research they do.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at

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