Bringing new students into the lab during the pandemic


As developed nations are on their way to returning to normal, we in the United States are in this pandemic for the long haul. January 2021 is the earliest that our government will even possibly start to do anything about the situation, and I’m not sanguine about the probability of a legitimate election outcome in what’s left of my country. That means it’s on us to figure out how to do science even under these conditions. Because as scientists, we need to keep doing science, now more than ever.

When I returned from sabbatical three years ago, I held off on bringing new students into my lab, other than doing some short group field projects. I had a bunch of reasons* to not take new students on.

My plan was to ramp back up this year. And I still I think it’s time to for me to get some students back into my lab. This sounds fun!

Except for the fact that students aren’t really allowed to physically work in our labs. They don’t want people working together for safety reasons unless it’s absolutely critical, and they also don’t want people working alone for safety reasons. New students in my lab won’t be in my lab. I can get in there to do some science, but that’s a very limited privilege. This semester, we’ll be working by zoom and email and slack and whatnot. And we won’t be working with samples, but merely using data from earlier projects that are in the analysis and writing stage. (Don’t worry, there’s no shortage of those!)

I’ve picked up some ability to use R over my sabbatical. (And I’ve lost, and then found it again, several times since then.) Am I ready to advise research students to do data management with R, when they’ve had no prior exposure to it? Hmm. I don’t know. I could be ready, but I don’t know if I have the capacity to give myself that much more training in the midst of everything else. Am I ready to advise students to instead work with spreadsheets in an exceedingly clunky way? Well, I’ve got more experience with that, but the whole idea of working with R is to do this more efficiently and reproducibly (not to mention to avoid getting dragged by reviewers), and the students deserve more.

I’m faced now bringing new student(s) into my research program without the opportunity of having the students work physically together, or meeting in person, or with having us physically interact with the organisms that we’re talking and reading and writing about.

If I had a lab with active students (not to mention postdocs or grad students), it would be somewhat easier to bring new students into the fold instead of building a community from scratch. I want to create a sense of community and belonging, and an excitement about the research questions that we are asking. It just feels hard when I end most days with zoom fatigue. I miss people.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m overjoyed that my university made the right call to keep things (almost entirely) remote this semester and presumably beyond, and that they made this wise decision back in May. I am so worried about those of you who are being compelled to return to teach in unsafe environments, as well. I’m now wondering what it will be like to operate a remote laboratory scaffolded on pre-existing data. (At least I have a bunch of data that will make very cool papers that needs to be taken care of and written up. Arguably, this pandemic is the boon for those data who have been lonely for quite a while now.)

For those of you operating your labs remotely, are you bringing new undergrads into the fold this year? How you working with them, what is being differently and what are you trying to keep the same?

*I was preparing to move into a pseudo-administrative role as the Director of Undergraduate Research (which means that I don’t get a raise or summary salary and still am doing service and advising as a faculty member, but also that I’m in charge of a bunch of stuff), and we were preparing to move into new science building (which we just moved into last month), and I had a backlog of manuscripts, and I was working on a book (which comes out in a month! yay!), and there’s a personal stuff that’s kept me from taking on new things that I’m not gonna get into.

2 thoughts on “Bringing new students into the lab during the pandemic

  1. I have been struggling to set up a productive remote lab routine, and I am definitely not satisfied with how we are operating at the moment. We also try to develop a strong commumity spirit with collaborative work, but we don’t have much data waiting for analysis so it has been difficult to keep our spirits up. I was, however, approached by an enthusastic undergrad and I decided to take her on. Normally we would set up a project and start practical work, but here in Brazil that is out of the question until next year (our situation is very similar to yours in the US). So we are trying a new approach with a doctoral student who is helping to mentor her: we defined a project outline, but are not yet working directly on it. We are starting by studying the underlying theory based on a textbook and have fortnightly online meetings to discuss the topic. As we progress we will branch out into reviews and then primary literature. Our goal is for her to have a decent theroetical grounding so she can start a more solid project in 2021. We only started a few weeks ago, but if it works I might use it as a template in the future, even after a return to “normal”!

  2. Hi Terry,
    I’m up at Humboldt State. I have two new undergrads in my lab that are doing a seed germination study this semester for research credit. Some of the work (counting/sorting seeds) can happen remotely. But they will also be in the lab and greenhouse some, too. I filled out an extensive risk management plan that was approved. I’ll probably be hiring one additional student to do some soils/root analysis. I’ll train them in my lab, then they’ll work by themself. All of these students ( and my 2 grad students) have weekly zoom meetings with me.

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