With classes for the fall term starting Monday, research labs are set to welcome students back as well. However, in adherence to social distancing guidelines, the University of Michigan Office of Research has limited research capacity to only 45 percent density during shifts, causing all undergraduate students except seniors to miss out on in-person research experience this semester.
Based on the latest weekly research reengagement update from the Office of Research, published Thursday, undergraduate students can only rejoin labs in which they “already have experience working with the same research team” and “may not be left alone in research spaces.”
Rebecca Cunningham, vice president for research, said enforcing the 45 percent density rule lab shifts is consistent with peer institutions. According to Cunningham, this applies to laboratories that can accommodate a maximum of one person per 144 square feet and can enforce social distancing protocols.
Costas Lyssiotis, assistant professor of molecular and integrative physiology, runs a lab with four undergraduate students, including one senior. Despite guidelines allowing seniors to resume lab activities, the capacity limitations made it impossible for the senior to return in-person.
“The university is restricted … there’s no space,” Lyssiotis said. “Even worse, I’ve been approached by half a dozen rotating graduate students from Michigan Medicine and I’ve had to tell them ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have space.’”
According to the research reengagement website, more researchers can be added to the lab by implementing rotating shifts “with a goal of reaching 100% of the building’s socially distanced capacity yet maintaining only 45% density at any one time.”
Lyssiotis said his lab was already working in shifts to involve as many lab members as possible. He said they have shifts from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 a.m., with an hour in between to clean and decontaminate the lab.
Yatrik Shah, professor of molecular and integrative physiology and internal medicine in the Medical School, said the shift schedule will make it harder for undergraduate students to allot time for research in between their classes.
“Flexibility is lost now because we move to shifts,” Shah said. “If they’re taking classes from nine to noon, they would just come after class, and then pop into the lab and finish their work. And so their ability to come in and out is fairly hindered.”
Shah echoed Lyssiotis, saying graduate students have more at stake than undergraduates if they do not have a research project this semester.
“If a researcher had to choose, they will always choose the graduate student or postdoc at this point rather than trying to give up occupancy (for) an undergrad,” Shah said. “My thoughts and concerns are around how many of our graduate students are going to find labs to rotate in and eventually choose for their dissertation work.”
Cunningham advised undergraduate students unable to resume in-person research to seek remote opportunities instead.
“Many teams are working remotely via Zoom, and there remain plenty of opportunities to get engaged in research and meet mentors in this new way, and then hopefully as time progresses, students will join in person,” Cunningham said.
Engineering sophomore Eve Shikanov is a research assistant for Brendon Baker, professor of biomedical engineering. She said working in-person is crucial for a successful lab experience.
“Doing stuff in person is so important,” Shikanov said. “Research is such an important pillar (of the undergraduate experience) … because we get to apply our knowledge in a real-world environment as well as interact with people. Especially in today’s world, face to face interaction like that is invaluable.”
LSA senior Alyssa Cutter said though she cannot fully understand how all undergraduate students are feeling, she went through a similar experience in the summer when she was not able to work in the lab. She felt the policy of allowing graduate students and postdocs to resume research but not undergraduates felt patronizing.
“I felt frustrated that my age was preventing me from doing what I love most at the University,” Cutter said. “Just because we are students does not mean we aren’t committed to safety. We are probably more committed to safety because we want to be working in the labs every day and now we know what it’s like to go without that in our lives.”
Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org