Lab Life

Grad Students Weigh In on Returning to Lab After Quarantine:

Clear Communication, Managing Expectations, and Other Keys to Safe Research During a Pandemic
Brianna Barbu

The first thing Jessica Wilson noticed when she swiped her ID badge and walked into the chemistry building after 67 days of working from home was the caution tape.

Long strips of the stuff had been put up all over the building’s atrium, directing her from the main door to a plexiglass cubicle. There, a staff member waited to take her temperature and verify that she’d filled out her daily health screening before giving her a sticker certifying that she was allowed to be in the building.

“It was extremely surreal,” said Wilson, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Michigan.

Summer 2020 has seen research activities at universities across the country starting to ramp back up after an extended period of being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidance on reopening policies varied from institution to institution, and sometimes even between neighboring labs in the same building.

I spoke with chemistry graduate students from four different universities about lab life during a pandemic and what department-level or lab-level policies they thought were (or weren’t) working to support them. As I did, several common concerns emerged:

1.  Unify Safety Standards 

The foundations of any good reopening plan are clear guidelines and basic safety standards that apply to everybody in the building, if not across the entire campus. That way, people working in the labs can be confident that everyone’s on the same page about things like wearing masks, contact tracing, and room capacities. Although this would be the ideal, it doesn’t always happen.

Chris Eckdahl, a fourth-year grad student at Northwestern, says that the university and his department provided very minimal guidance, so “it was really up to the PIs, and in many cases up to the groups themselves, to come up with plans.” He’s concerned that some PIs might be taking advantage of that lack of oversight and cutting corners. The pandemic, he says, “really makes it clear with some PIs where the power lies and where the priorities lie” with respect to grad students’ safety and wellbeing. More central standards, he believes, would help protect everyone.

The basic practices that make for a safe lab are fairly well agreed upon.

Hygiene and sanitization. Good hygiene is crucial. Brittany Trang, a fourth-year grad student at Northwestern, says that the path into shared-instrument facilities brings people by a hand-washing station, and all instruments must be disinfected before and after use. At Michigan, Wilson disinfects her hood and bench at the beginning and end of every day. A similar policy applies at the University of Utah, according to Erin Gaffney, a fourth-year grad student. She frequently works with bacteria and was used to wiping everything down with 70% ethanol even before the pandemic.

Personal Protective Equipment. PPE has always been important in labs, but now it’s doubly so. Gloves are worn and changed more frequently, and mask-wearing is a must. Will Henderson, a fifth-year grad student at the University of Florida, says his mom made him several reusable masks. Gaffney and her colleagues at Utah are encouraged to take as many masks as they need home. According to Trang, masks aren’t required in her lab at Northwestern for working at hoods because of the chance that they could absorb solvent vapors, but she wears one everywhere else.

Contract Tracing. Contract tracing is an area where a consistent institutional response is essential. Michigan’s strong central guidance is reflected in the screening questionnaires and temperature checks Wilson faces every day that she comes to campus. Other departments ask students to self-monitor, which could introduce more uncertainty. However, Wilson questions how accurate the thermometers at the entrance to her building are because they consistently read her as hypothermic in July. So, perhaps there’s room for improvement all around.

Social Distancing. And then, of course, there is social distancing with its many implications. Booking time on a shared instrument is now roughly equivalent to booking time in the room it’s located in. Formal training sessions on department instruments are conducted over Zoom, if not foregone altogether. “I get to teach myself how to use the MALDI,” says Wilson. Also, as a senior grad student, it often falls to her to teach more junior labmates how to use equipment, which she notes is a lot harder to do from six feet away.

Caution Sign: Maintain Social Distancing
Establishing comprehensive safety guidance is a must for working in a lab during a pandemic
Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

2.  Establish Clear Lines of Communication

It’s not enough for safety guidelines to exist—they also have to be communicated to the people who need to know about them.

Even institutions with a lot of central guidance have had gaps in communication. Like many other universities, Michigan ramped up lab occupancy limits in three phases over a period of several weeks. Wilson says phase details were sent from the department chair to her adviser, who then forwarded it to the rest of the lab, which frustrates her. “I’m pretty much the last person to know, even though it directly affects me,” she says. It’s also unclear to her what the criteria for moving to a new phase are.

Within a lab, communication is crucial as well. Utah’s Gaffney and Northwestern’s Eckdahl both say their groups are constantly evaluating what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s sustainable for the long term—because nobody really knows how long they’re going to have to work under restricted conditions. These discussions give the grad students a voice in advocating for their own safety.

Hands with gloves
Clear communication from department and lab leadership shows grad students that their wellbeing matters.
Anton via Unsplash

3.  Set Up Schedules That Make Sense

Working in shifts is perhaps the biggest consequence of social distancing in research labs. What these shifts look like and who makes the schedule, vary from place to place.

“We probably had too much input,” Trang of Northwestern says. She recalls that it took quite a bit of negotiation to come up with a system that people could agree on. Some wanted more time, others wanted less risk, and trying to satisfy everyone became “a little bit fraught.” In the end, they came up with a rotating, three-shift system that gives people at least a little bit of time every day if they want it, while still keeping room occupancy below 50% of capacity.

The system used by Gaffney’s lab at Utah is similarly complex. (It’s fascinating to see how many different solutions people invented for the same problem). Each person is assigned a priority order, which rotates every two weeks. People sign up for slots online based on their priority, so “if you have priority, you might be planning a super busy two weeks of experiments because you know you’ll be able to be in lab a lot,” says Gaffney, while lower priority weeks afford a good time to analyze data.

At Michigan, every lab in the Chemistry department used the same shift schedule for the first few phases of reopening. Wilson assumes it was decided on by the faculty. Researchers were put on either a Sunday through Wednesday or Thursday through Saturday shift, so they got either three or four full 12-hour days in the lab and spent the rest of the week working from home.

As of July 17, the building has moved to a new phase and groups can set their own shifts. Wilson says Michigan’s old schedule was awkward because it limited the number of overnight reactions people could do—which was an issue for synthetic labs like hers. One of her labmates’ ligands takes three days to make, plus a day of work-up. It took all the lab time in a week just to make a ligand, without even using it for anything.

Eckdahl says the situation that Wilson described regarding overnight reactions is part of the reason his lab at Northwestern, which also does a lot of synthesis, settled on a schedule where everyone gets two full days and two half days per week. They tried out a three days on, three days off schedule at first, but it was hard to get a full day of work done on the third day because people couldn’t run overnight reactions—so they revised their plan.

If building-wide safety standards and occupancy limits are clear, the ability to assess and change shift schedules to suit each lab’s unique needs seems not only feasible, but reasonable. It empowers grad students and postdocs to collaboratively structure their time to be both safe and productive in the long term.

Glass in a laboratory
Different labs may require different shift schedules depending on the types of work they do.
Chromatograph via Unsplash

4.  Manage Expectations

Having a limit on the amount of time that they can be in lab is stressful, especially when grad students feel like they have to make up for months of lost time. “I feel like I started my Ph.D. over again,” Trang says. Not only does she have a new project, she now has to make sure everything she does in lab at Northwestern is worth the time it takes. She’s often planning down to the minute to make sure she makes the most of her shift. “I’m constantly either analyzing data to try and figure out my next experiment, or I’m trying to frantically take data.”

Wilson describes a similar pressure to fill her days productively at Michigan. “I feel like I work more now than before,” she says. She’s was trying to finish a paper this summer, so half the week she’s analyzing data and writing, and the other half she is scrambling to get more data, which is difficult if she needs to negotiate with labmates for glovebox and instrument time. “I feel like I’m at a point where I need to be cutthroat and actually say, ‘I’m sorry, I have a paper to get out in three weeks, you’re going to have to work around me,’” she says. She doesn’t like it, “but a deadline is a deadline.”

An adviser who understands the unique stresses of the moment and helps students manage their expectations can make or break the reopening experience. Luckily, the people I spoke to had such advisers. Northwestern’s Eckdahl, Utah’s Gaffney, and Florida’s Henderson all said that their advisers have told them explicitly that it’s okay to not be at peak productivity in the midst of so much change and uncertainty. Gaffney added that her adviser made a point of considering the needs of postdocs with children at home. It’s actually partly because her adviser has been so gracious that Northwestern’s Trang says she’s so determined to work hard while she’s in the lab.

Image of stressed student
Doing graduate-level research was stressful enough without a pandemic on top of it all—remember to take care of yourself!
JESHOOTS.COM via Unsplash

Cooperating for a New Normal

“I’m pretty much expecting this to be what the rest of my Ph.D. looks like,” says Wilson of her time at Michigan. Almost every person I spoke to echoed some version of that same sentiment. Wilson added that the idea of finishing her degree under social distancing conditions is “weird and sad.” She says she misses her friends, many of whom are on other shifts.

In the end, there seemed to be good consensus on what grad students need to make the prospect of doing a chemistry Ph.D. during a pandemic slightly less daunting. They all agree on the following:

  • Clear, high-level guidelines regarding safety standards.
  • Transparent communications regarding decisions that will impact lab personnel.
  • Having a say in certain decisions, such as designing schedules that fit their labs’ workflows while still staying within departmental safety guidelines.
  • Acknowledging the high-stress circumstances and prioritizing wellbeing over productivity.

Some of these actions are relatively small, and others may be more complex, particularly in large departments, but combined, they show grad students that they are valued, and that their safety is important to their institutions. Most importantly, these actions give graduate students agency and a voice concerning issues that affect them.