‘I’m back to where I was’: Undergraduate research pivots to remote-only in light of stay-in-place order

Monday, October 26, 2020 - 10:02am

The recent Washtenaw County Health Department stay-at-home order bars students from in-person research.

The recent Washtenaw County Health Department stay-at-home order bars students from in-person research. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

Less than two weeks after the University of Michigan announced its decision to begin ramping up in-person research for all undergraduates, students have been barred from doing in-person research due to the recent stay-in-place order.

Rising COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in the residence halls led the Washtenaw County Health Department to issue a stay-in-place order for undergraduate students on Tuesday. Under the stay-in-place order, undergraduates are not able to resume research in-person but can leave their residences for a variety of reasons. Only special departmental permission for senior lab members is allowed. 

Students told The Michigan Daily research opportunities are one of the defining characteristics of life at the University. When the pandemic hit in March and non-critical research began to shut down, many were worried about the lasting impacts the closures would have on research projects that require lab work.

So far this fall, the majority of undergraduates who have been allowed to participate in in-person research are seniors with prior research experience. The University’s Oct. 12th announcement initially expanded this opportunity to include all undergraduates, regardless of class standing or experience. 

Vice President for Research Rebecca Cunningham said in an email to The Daily that the University's quick reversal on in-person research was necessary given the stay-in-place order. 

“The university has not shut down all undergraduate research and scholarship activity on the Ann Arbor campus,” Cunningham wrote. “In acknowledgment of the recent 14-day Stay in Place order issued by the Washtenaw County Health Department, we have temporarily rolled back expansion of in-person undergraduate research activity to what was allowed prior to October 12.”

Cunningham said that although some undergraduates were only recently allowed back into labs, it is important to follow public health orders. 

“Undergraduates who recently regained access to research and scholarship after October 11 must unfortunately pause in-person activity until November 3,” Cunningham wrote. “We share how frustrating it is to live and work and learn in this time of COVID.” 

Cunningham emphasized the importance of undergraduate research to the University. 

“Undergraduates play a critical role in our research and teaching mission,” Cunningham wrote. “And so we will continue to monitor virus transmission rates to determine when all undergraduates can safely resume in-person research and scholarship activity.” 

Alain Sullivan, an LSA and Music, Theatre, and Dance senior involved in molecular biology research, said he still hopes to resume in-person research this semester. 

“I was pretty much counting on it because I am writing my thesis,” Sullivan said. “So up until the pandemic hit I was really looking forward to spending the whole summer in Ann Arbor doing research.” 

Because of the pandemic, Sullivan said he has been forced to do his biomolecular research remotely. 

“It’s been tough, it really has,” he said. “I pretty much can't do any projects that require any sort of in person (work) … it’s not the same as being in the lab performing experiments.”

Sullivan, a molecular biology and jazz major, said research is an opportunity to engage with scientific material in the same way he gets to engage with music in his SMTD classes. 

“You get into this cycle of just going through the motions and learning the material,” Sullivan said. “In music we always play, we always apply what we learn. And research is that outlet for science.” 

Dani Maydan, co-editor in chief of the University’s Undergraduate Research Journal and LSA senior, is involved in pediatric cancer research on campus. Maydan said research is an important aspect of being a University student.

“Contributing to research is being a part of something greater than yourself,” Maydan said. “It’s such an incredible opportunity that we have in the University of Michigan to make these contributions and to continue to grow and develop.” 

Maydan had been allowed back into her lab to continue research until the stay-in-place order made it  impossible.

“It’s really heartbreaking, especially as a senior,” she said. “It’s very, very disappointing and heartbreaking. So many years working towards this one goal to kind of fall apart and to know that I’m not going to be here next year.” 

Maydan expressed her frustration with the University's handling of the pandemic. U-M administration informs students about possible COVID-19 exposure through emailed notices and about new cases through the COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated daily.

“They’re shutting things like research down that aren’t negatively making an impact, but are making a positive impact,” Mayden said. “And (they’re) just hoping that people are gonna pay attention to the fact they're not doing anything to address the actual problem.” 

LSA junior Delia Perillo, who is involved in neuroscience research, said the announcement that her in-person work was being suspended was especially upsetting because she had so recently been allowed to resume in-person.

“A few weeks ago was my first time back in the lab,” Perillo said. “I was … all happy because I finally got to go in, but then we get the email that says, ‘Just kidding. Yeah, you can't go back.’” 

Engineering freshman Elyse McLintock is involved in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and said finding a project to be involved in this semester has been difficult due to the back-and-forth announcements over in-person research. 

“A lot of the projects are lab-based,” McLintock said. “And since undergraduates couldn’t work in the lab, it is hard to find a project because a lot of professors wouldn’t take (undergraduates) on knowing that they couldn’t have people in the lab.” 

For McLintock, reopening in-person research for all undergraduates was the chance to get into a lot of projects that weren’t possible before.

“I was kind of excited,” McLintock said. “And I applied to some (projects) that were waiting for everything to reopen. But now I know I can’t rely on those applications because they’re closed again … and so I’m back to where I was.” 

Daily News Contributor Paige Hodder can be reached at phodder@umich.edu


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