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OU closing research labs during pandemic impacts graduate students' school timelines, collaborative research

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OU Research Campus

The OU Research campus on November 21.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought several challenges to college campuses and forced them to respond to the global scenario to maintain a safe place for faculty and students on campus.

OU has adopted a hybrid system of classes, instituting a mandatory use of masks and social distancing, canceling study abroad programs and ending or reducing in-person activities on campus — which has had a significant impact on the university’s research mission as laboratories shut down across campus.

Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia said the only laboratories that remained open were those which were conducting COVID-19-related research.

“We've had to take drastic action in terms of closing down all of the research laboratories at the university except for those that were conducting what we refer to as ‘essential research,’ (which) was related to human health in terms of COVID-19,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “It was a very drastic reduction in the amount of research activity that took place here at the university for quite a while starting in March.”

Impact on student researchers 

Díaz de la Rubia said over the summer, laboratories started reopening slowly — mainly to help students to work on their research so they could complete their courses, their Ph.D.s or master's theses. 

“We did a series of restarts of research activity on campus,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “But, again, that still meant the amount of research being conducted was slower than it normally will have been, so it created a lot of challenges.”

Microbiology and immunology professor William Hildebrand said graduate students were considerably impacted by the pandemic.

“Students are going to have to spend longer in school,” Hildebrand said. “Let's say you were allotted X number of years to finish your Ph.D. Well, if COVID came in in the middle of your Ph.D., you might have to add a year on to that guideline because your ability to come to the laboratory and complete experiments is reduced.” 

He said the COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult for graduate students to conduct experiments in the laboratory. Some of those restrictions include limited spaces in laboratories and workplaces, and a reduction of in-person meetings.

“(Graduate students) probably spent two hours to three hours doing experiments, physically, but it's not all at one time,” Hildebrand said. “There could be incubation periods or can be longer periods. In order to complete experiments, you need to spend that time in the lab.” 

Hildebrand said it’s difficult for students to spend the time they need in the lab and do experiments with all the restrictions on people coming to work and the university being closed.

Jordan Craig Evans, postdoctoral fellow and bacterial toxins specialist, said he believes the biggest challenge for college-level researchers is the limitation on human interaction and communication. 

“Science at any level thrives on communication to receive feedback, generate new ideas and promote new discoveries to a wider audience,” Evans said. “The pandemic has caused some labs to close down, others to limit the time and number of people in the lab for research, and social distancing measures often limit the amount of interaction one is able to have with others. Among other things, this can make training to learn new lab skills difficult or impossible.”

Nicole Giordano, a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology and immunology and president of the OU Graduate Student Association, said graduate students are not only having to deal with challenges inside the labs, but also in their personal lives.

“There are also many students who have families or are not from Oklahoma or the U.S.,” Giordano said. “In addition to the research challenges mentioned above, these students are also dealing with balancing childcare and the stresses of not knowing when (they) will see (their) family again.”

Research goes remote

As the pandemic prompted OU’s research to move to online Zoom formats, Evans said “beneficial” interactions that could take place in scientific conferences and at in-person gatherings could not be considered a priority under the circumstances.

Giordano said working from home has become frequent, especially for students who are involved in writing or bioinformatics. She said it’s been challenging for students who are exclusively online to adapt to the new changes.

“The good thing about online research is that it can be done anywhere, but the drawbacks are having adequate computing power at home to do what you need to do and that you don’t get any person-to-person interaction, which I know has been hard for some students,” Giordano said.

Hildebrand said graduate students — especially those who are on their way to getting a Ph.D. or a master’s degree — end up being more affected than earlier students since conducting experiments is part of their coursework. 

He said early students who are planning on going to medical school, chemistry students and physics students are also going to be impacted because they’re not able to do physical labs. They have learned to deal with the Zoom classes, but it’d be helpful to have some practical lab courses, he said.

“I'd say that there's a wide range of students impacted,” Hildebrand said. “It'll be difficult for advanced graduate students to make up (for) that time whereas I think it might be possible to — when there's restrictions — to make that (time) up as a younger student. But as an advanced graduate student, I don't know if you can make that time up. It's more difficult to go back and recapture what you've missed.”

Travel troubles and future transitions 

Hildebrand talked about how the restrictions in traveling — which plays a big role in the research program — have affected the students’ experiences with research.

“The best thing you can do is send your students out to meetings and send them out to visit a lab in Stanford, Harvard, Texas, Kansas or Chicago. We have collaborators in Oregon, Chicago, Boston, California — all over the world,” Hildebrand said. “The students can go out and work, spend some time visiting and maybe even working in those labs. It really broadens your experience of what science is. It really gives you a feeling of being part of a scientific community that's been completely stripped away by these travel restrictions.”

Evans said conferences being canceled negatively impacts the interactions students can build.  

“Scientific conferences, which traditionally are a rite of passage for young scientists to get exposure and feedback, have often been canceled or moved to online Zoom formats,” Evans said. “The Zoom format is better than nothing, to be sure, but limits so many beneficial interactions that otherwise would be able to take place at in-person gatherings.”

Hildebrand said the interactions he cultivated in meetings over the years have added to his research experience and greatly contributed to his career. 

“Right now, these graduate students and young scientists are not able to go out and set up interactions with other scientists. Some people right now (who) sit with the Zoom videos might undervalue how important those interactions are," Hildebrand said, "but going to a meeting and talking science with someone, being excited with them and getting stoked on something that's completely geeky ... is something that doesn't happen on a Zoom video but it can happen in person."

Giordano said traveling to conferences and workshops is definitely a major part of research, as it fosters collaboration, learning and networking. 

“Every conference or workshop that I have heard of in 2020, including those that I was supposed to attend, were canceled or moved to a virtual format,” Giordano said. “Although virtual format has its perks over complete cancellation, it does not replace the benefits of in-person interactions.” 

She said this especially impacts scientists who are early in their career and looking for jobs. The inability to travel also impedes collaborations that involve a lab member going to help with or learn a skill from an expert resource.

Díaz de la Rubia said even though the pandemic has created a lot of challenges for the research program, the department has learned how to adapt to the current scenario. He said the research community has gotten “very good” at organizing multi-thousand people meetings online with breakout sessions and developed opportunities to interact and communicate. 

“We've transitioned like everybody else. We have adapted to be able to take advantage of the online capabilities of things like Zoom and other platforms,” Díaz de la Rubia said. “I have organized conferences and meetings from the university online with people from around the world. We do it all the time. So, one has to adapt to the current situation of the pandemic (because) we're all on the same boat.”

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