“15 grams of L-phenylalanine, 3.5 grams of sodium iodate and 10 grams of iodine was added to a 9:1 100 mL mixture of glacial acetic acid and sulfuric acid …” I read aloud from the Journal of Organic Chemistry paper. My graduate student mentor, Bernadette, had found this paper because it contained the experimental protocol for the reaction I was running that day — an iodination of L-phenylalanine to produce 4-iodo-L-phenylalanine.
Hunched over my black countertop lab bench, scanning this protocol, I felt the pre-experiment jitters. Will this experiment work? Am I using enough reagent to produce product that will last for months? I hope I don’t mess up this experiment, Bernadette is giving me a lot of independence.
I continued thinking about the experiment and walked myself through the steps of the protocol, imagining the preparation and performance of each step.
I set aside the paper, put my lab coat, lab goggles and lab gloves on and began to work. In another room, I scooped the solid, crystalline reagents listed above onto plastic weigh boats on the mass scale and poured out my liquid solvents, acetic acid and sulfuric acid. I combined all these chemicals into a lightbulb-shaped piece of glassware called a round-bottom flask, which would serve as the vessel for my chemical reaction. I set up my experimental apparatus in a large, rectangular ventilation device called a fume hood, allowing the reaction to run for 24 hours while stirring and heating under a nitrogenous environment.
Having personally worked in three different labs at the University of Michigan — a protein science lab, a synthetic inorganic chemistry lab and an enzymology lab — over the course of several years, I understand what a typical day in a research lab looks like. Graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and even undergraduate students make up the populace of each lab; they work every day on individual projects or projects under a mentor’s supervision, and meet with the principal investigator, or the professor who runs the lab called the PI, regularly to provide project updates.
The basic premise of scientific research is the scientific method. Essentially, there is a research goal in mind, an experiment is designed to make progress in solving the research problem based on a hypothesis about this problem and the results of this experiment will dictate the direction of the project — whether another experiment is required, whether a collaboration with another lab would prove useful and if a paper can be written up about the results. The principal investigator of each lab spends their time writing grants, guiding students and coming up with new project ideas, while their students, under the supervision of the principal investigator, design experiments to make progress on the project.
The process of running an experiment or reaction is unparalleled, especially when you have more than just a procedural understanding of the experiment, like when you can explain in academic and scientific terms what you are doing. Written experimental steps are underpinned by science; understanding this science, what each step of the experimental protocol actually means, is a satisfying and fruitful feeling because you actually understand what you’re doing in a lab. Running an experiment independently, moreover, is exciting because it’s a project you’ve designed, over which you have control, and that feels consequential.
While lab interests, instrumentation and lab cultures vary across departments, the basic premise of their research efforts remains the same, and the way labs run operationally, with regard to safety, shared lab spaces, sharing of instrumentation and storing of chemicals remains the same. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted research labs and their ability to operate in their normal capacities. In mid-March, University President Mark Schlissel released a communication about the pandemic and how it would force classes to go online and halt all research activities, stating that “researchers across all three campuses should ramp down all noncritical laboratory research activities.”
To investigate the impact of the pandemic on research activities, I spoke with several professors who represent a variety of science-related departments in person and over Zoom, as well as a graduate student at the University.
LSA assistant professor Randy Stockbridge of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, whose lab is housed in the Biological Sciences Building, described over Zoom what happened after Schlissel sent out the communication.
“We started with almost a three-month research shutdown where everybody was doing portions of their projects from home,” she said. “Then when we were allowed back into the labs … there are new safety protocols in place, so they’re wearing full lab coats, lab glasses, face masks, face masks at all times. They’re social-distancing, and there are occupancy limits in the lab.”
Asked about the changes to the way research is done in the labs, she said that her students now do “shift work,” taking turns to work in the mornings and afternoons — the department has now become more flexible about allowing graduate students to work late into the night and early in the morning. If there’s part of a research project that can be completed from home, she said her students do their work virtually rather than work in the office because of occupancy limits inside the lab spaces.
Even the normal safety guidelines have changed. Now, there are two levels of safety: the general lab guidelines, and the additional layer of social distancing, mask wearing and occupancy limits. This has impacted the usually casual nature of lab behavior and organization.
“This has required us to sort of formalize things much more,” Stockbridge said. “Before, you’d come into lab, you’d want to use a specific instrument, you’d maybe want to talk to somebody and say, ‘Oh, you planning to use this instrument today?’ and sort of work it out … now we’re moving towards scheduling rooms and communicating in a much more formalized way about who would be occupying which room when.”
Stockbridge additionally described her hopes about the long-term effects of the pandemic on research operations in the BSB by saying,
“I think all of us are hoping that this is temporary and you know, soon enough, we’ll be back to our normal research rhythms,” Stockbridge said. “You know, it’s difficult to run a lab when I’m sitting at home and when everybody is at their home computers. We’re missing a lot of the informal interactions that make being in a lab so enriching … I can’t drop in and see what’s going on or one of my students can’t call me over and say ‘Hey, come look at this data.’”
Over in the Biological Chemistry Department, housed in the Medical Sciences Building, where LSA associate professor Bruce Palfey runs an enzymology lab studying flavin-dependent enzymes, there have been similar changes to the way labs operate.
“Well we don’t share refrigerator space, so (research etiquette) hasn’t changed, and there are some common use equipment,” Palfey said. “There’s procedures about signing up and using it and washing it down afterwards to prevent contamination … we’re keeping density down.”
Palfey noted that, unlike before, when lab meetings took place on a weekly basis in a conference room with all the lab members in attendance, lab meetings and sub-group meetings are now taking place virtually. Even meetings among professors are taking place over online platforms like Zoom.
In the Chemistry Department, there are similar safety-related changes to lab etiquette. I spoke in person with Bernadette Schneider, a graduate student in the Vincent Pecoraro lab where I work, and she explained what happened after the University allowed labs to start running again.
“(Around the end of May), they started out allowing just four people in the lab, including the PI, so we had to get everything cleaned and institute protocols for sanitizing all of the surfaces.”
Schneider added that lab meetings take place over Zoom and thesis defenses are taking place online.
Research at the University is a crucial aspect of its academic culture, as it is regularly ranked as the number one research institution in the nation. The COVID-19 pandemic halted research activities, significantly impacting how research runs operationally, with regard to safety and organization. After research activities resumed, new departmental policies were put into place, occupancy limits were levied on labs and within labs, the culture with respect to shared lab spaces and instrumentation has changed.
For now, research at the University is back up and running, though with social distancing measures in place and new safety protocols. It will be worth noting how the pandemic impacts laboratory research at the University in the long-term, and whether some of these new changes will be formalized into new policies for each of these different science departments.
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