Grad students in labs talk impact of COVID-19 on research

Wednesday, April 8, 2020 - 8:08pm

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Design by Caitlin Martens

 

For Rackham student Stephanie Pistorius, living on-campus with her husband during the time of COVID-19 has been full of uncertainty. She said she was not prepared for the impact on lab research, though she had been following the news in the weeks leading up to the University of Michigan’s announcement of the cancellation of in-person classes.

“It felt focused on undergrads,” Pistorius said. 

However, with the pandemic spreading, she mentioned how not going into the lab for more than six weeks will derail her tentative graduation date.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately,” she said.

Pistorius works in a wet lab that runs experiments with cell lines and animals. The cell lines can be frozen and picked up once things go back to normal, but the animals have to be a certain age to conduct experiments and require her to go in periodically and take care of them. Once the University announced that only critical lab work would be permitted, Pistorius faced a dilemma.

“It was like a daily struggle of ‘Should I go in or should I not go in?’” Pistorius said. 

With the time she would usually be spending in the lab, Pistorius is catching up on data analysis, reading primary research papers and writing the introduction to her dissertation. 

“Hopefully this time I use to catch up (on material) will make me more efficient once I’m back in the lab,” Pistorius said.

Costas Lyssiotis, a molecular and integrative physiology professor and Ph.D. adviser, runs a lab that studies cancer cells in order to form targeted therapies to improve the immune system. Many of these experiments take multiple months and involve mice that need to be periodically monitored. Some of his lab members have set up a Google Calendar and take turns going into the lab in order to keep collecting data from the mice.

“In addition to the time and financial burden, we’re cognizant that these animals give their life for research and you want to treat them as fairly as possible, and so to just sack an experiment when the results were looking positive,” Lyssiotis said. “We deem that to be too extreme.”

Lyssiotis said he has been overwhelmed throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and the governor’s stay-at-home order, with his two kids occupying a lot of his time, but he knows the same isn’t true for others.

“I know some of my grad students are starting to exhibit signs of boredom — getting silly on Twitter, for example,” Lyssiotis said. 

Daniel Kremer is a Rackham graduate student in Lyssiotis’s lab, hoping to graduate in May. He has a paper in the revision process, where experts in his field suggest he conduct certain experiments before publishing the paper. However, being unable to go into the lab pushes back his tentative graduation date to the end of the summer.

“It was kind of like ‘You’re almost done. You’re almost free, almost across the finish line, but then yeah,’” Kremer said. 

Rackham student Christa Ventresca is in the middle of lab rotations, where graduate students spend several months in different labs before deciding on one at the end of the year. She said her program in Biomedical Sciences had made it easy for students, allowing them to join a lab they wanted without completing all the rotations.

However, for Ventresca, spending time in the physical lab space was an important part of making a decision.

“(This situation) makes it really hard to pick a lab when you’re not physically in the lab,” she said.

Rackham student Zachary Reese is involved in social psychological research where he performs studies on participants from the LSA Psychology Subject Pools. With the cancellation of all human studies, the focus in his lab has shifted from data collection to data analysis. He said the Psychology Department has been supportive and is letting students work at their own pace, so fulfilling degree requirements was not a major concern. However, finding a job is a pressing challenge for Reese, especially with the current state of the economy.

“When looking at 2008 and the big recession, we know (those who graduated that year) had trouble finding jobs,” Reese said. “But when they did find one, they were much more grateful and happy with what they had ... I think finding a silver lining in all of this is important.” 

Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu.