Undergraduate students unable to resume in-person research, deemed “non-essential”

Sunday, June 28, 2020 - 9:13pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

While many University of Michigan students use the summer months to gain experience from internships and jobs, others engage in various research projects across campus to gain critical skills for career development. But in a matter of weeks, those plans to participate in cutting-edge research at the No. 1 public research university in the U.S. were halted as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all non-essential in-person research activity.

Since then, the University has started ramping up non-essential research. Furthermore, members of the research community have begun to resume in-person lab work in phases, while following procedures to protect the health and safety of researchers. However, undergraduate students, who are heavily involved in many labs across campus, are still restricted from returning to labs under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s current guidelines, which classifies undergraduate students as “non-essential in-person visitors.” 

LSA sophomore Kylie Schache, a UROP student during the school year, said she was planning on working in a lab that studies Alzheimer’s disease for the summer. The lab work was a full-time paying position in which she would work 40 to 50 hours per week. 

These plans, however, came to a halt when COVID-19 prevented undergraduates from returning to labs –– and it doesn’t seem like this will change anytime soon, Schache said. As a result, Schache said she is considering taking a semester off to gain additional research experience at the University in hopes of preparing her for a career in research.

“I'm actually considering that I might need to take a gap semester,” Schache said. “The fact that the University of Michigan is the number one public research university is the primary reason why I chose to attend there and really the definitive reason why I'm willing to attend the most expensive public university in the United States. So the loss of research opportunities kind of called into question whether attending the University merits the cost at this point. I can take the classes and I can get the degrees, but ultimately what's going to prepare me for what I want to do with my career — which I want to do a career in research — it’s the research opportunities that are most important.”

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen reaffirmed in an email to The Daily that undergraduates are unable to participate in laboratory research at this time due to Whitmer’s latest executive order. Broekhuizen also noted the University’s efforts to develop principles to protect the health and safety of researchers as they begin to resume work amid COVID-19. 

“The university must adhere to state regulations, and so we will closely monitor any updates to the governor's executive order as it relates to laboratory research,” Broekhuizen wrote.

As of June 26, the University completed the laboratory research re-engagement waves, and more than 95 percent of the University’s lab workforce is now re-engaged, according to an update from Rebeccca Cunningham, vice president for research. While researchers continue to resume in-person activity, labs are to remain operating at about 30 percent capacity at any given shift.

Gary Luker, professor of radiology, biomedical engineering, microbiology and immunology, conducts research focusing on molecular imaging of cell signaling in cancer. Over the course of his entire time working in the lab, Luker has had roughly 35 to 40 undergraduate students participate in their research.

“Undergraduates are a big part of our research lab and our research enterprise,” Luker said. “For us — and I don’t think we are unique in terms of laboratories at the University of Michigan — we are not having undergraduates come into the lab solely to do the dishes, clean the pipettes, what have you. Undergraduates in our lab, we typically ask them up front to make a commitment to our lab for a couple of years at a time, and during that time, they develop unique expertise, areas that they have as their own research projects, they’re doing work that supports federally funded grants and contracts, so their work is really important in advancing our overall research.”

In response to Whitmer’s current policies on undergraduate students returning to labs, Luker has been reaching out to state senators and representatives in hopes of changing this policy. Luker further noted that undergraduate students participating in labs are beneficial to both the labs that they contribute to and the experiences undergraduate students gain as a result. 

“I think one of the draws of coming to a large research institution like the University of Michigan is being able to participate in cutting-edge research projects,” Luker said. “To me, it seems like the executive orders are discriminating against undergraduates and not only the benefits that they bring to the research environment, but the benefits they gain from being there … I think it really gives a short-sighted perspective on the value of professional experience as an undergraduate and what it can mean for career development.”

LSA sophomore Elizabeth Cho, a member of a smaller lab that focuses on biochemical research, echoed similar sentiments on being able to partake in unique experiences from a lab setting that not many University classrooms can offer. 

“I definitely learned a lot from being in the lab, and from my PI (principal investigator) and other mentors, so it kind of halts back that experience of being able to see how knowledge is created,” Cho said. “That is pretty unique. You don’t get that in standard science class labs. Those are mostly prescribed practicals, and you don’t really create new knowledge, you kind of follow along with what they tell you to do. So it’s definitely a unique perspective that I think a lot of undergrads would miss out on.”

Schache said she believes it is not unreasonable to re-engage undergraduate students into their labs. Schache explained that the procedures and protocols already in place for sanitation and cleanliness that the labs are prepared to handle the transition. 

“I think there are ways to return to the labs more quickly without taking on too much risk,” Schache said. “I mean in a research lab setting, sanitation is already a primary importance. We already wear gloves. When I was working in a lab from September to March, I was seldom within six feet of anyone besides my research mentor, which is just one other person. I think there can be ways that we can return in relative safety to the labs if we add masks and consider other precautions. We can't eliminate any risk of transmission, but I think at some point, considering that there's so many diseases and health conditions still killing more people than COVID-19, we may need to consider that there's risks on both sides. There's a risk from the pandemic itself, but there's also a risk from the continued slowing of academic research on other topics."

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.