Undergraduates, graduates and professors’ research efforts impacted by COVID-19

Undergraduates, graduates and professors’ research efforts impacted by COVID-19

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COVID-19 ramp-up and ramp-down plan implemented to ease transmission and infection

As the campus transitions away from in-person operations, research at UC Davis is shifting, with undergraduate, graduate students and professors aiming to minimize COVID-19 transmission and infection. 

The Office of Research—in collaboration with the UC Davis leadership team, the University of California Office of the President and officials from other UC campuses—has developed guidelines “to help the campus research community limit the impact and potential risk associated with COVID-19,” according to their website.

These directives are outlined and summarized in the COVID-19 Research Ramp-Up Plan, revised on Aug. 24. 

The document delineates four overarching phases for ramp-up or ramp-down plans: Phase 1 and 1x, Phase 2, Phase 3 and Phase 4. 

“We are still in Phase 2, which gives priority to time-sensitive research activities in addition to essential research included in Phase 1,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for research, via email. “We hope to progress to Phase 3 soon, but that is completely dependent on progress in containment of the virus in our areas.”

Phase 2 has been effective since June 1, and allows approximately one-third of research personnel to be on-site any time, with a focus on time-sensitive research activities. 

Examples of such research projects include “seasonal data collection such as field and agricultural work, time-sensitive human subject research studies, experiments close to completion, or deadline driven [projects] whose pause or deferral would lead to delays or loss of research results,” according to the document.

Phase 3 emphasizes the gradual restart of research, implying around two-thirds of research personnel can be on-site at any time. 

Overall, Mohapatra said that he advises individuals conducting research to “be patient and practical” while still searching for feasible opportunities. Mohapatra also said he anticipates the impact of COVID-19 on research on campus to vary depending on the type of research and where it is conducted.

“Researchers conducting field work may have limited impact,” Mohapatra said. “But those that had typically operated in small indoor [spaces] with many people will have to adapt the most to comply with the instructions.” 

He said that activities like data analysis, proposal development and manuscript preparations can be done outside of the lab space. 

“The top priority is the safety of our researchers, staff and subjects,” Mohapatra said. “Our objective is to enable all UC Davis research to resume as soon as possible while maintaining adherence to public health guidance and maintaining appropriate hazard mitigation strategies. 

Undergraduate researcher support

For many undergraduates, research is a key component of their UC Davis experience. 

“At the current moment, we know that in-person research will be very limited and not available for a majority of our undergraduate students,” Associate Director of the Undergraduate Research Center Elizabeth M. Nuñez said, via email. “The best thing undergraduate students can do is contact faculty members directly to determine the status of their research and if there is an option to join a research lab/team/project.” 

The Undergraduate Research Center (URC) is committed to providing support to undergraduate students in navigating this process, Nuñez said. 

“Our most important goal is to make our center and team accessible to all undergraduate students at UC Davis and ensure they feel supported during these unprecedented times,” Nuñez said. “The way we accomplish this goal is to listen to our students and make sure that we are offering programs, services and overall support that assists students [to] achieve their research goals.”

After receiving an increase in summer advising requests, the URC decided to spearhead a Discovery Café Advising Series that is “aimed at supporting students, through information sharing” and “in finding research opportunities during these unprecedented times,” Nuñez said. 

So far, there have been five Discovery Café sessions, during which more than 300 students have attended. This program makes information more accessible to students. Recordings of these sessions are also available for students who were not available to attend. 

The 32nd annual Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Conference will also be held this year. 

“It’s too early to tell what format it will be in, but Aggies can rest assured that we will have a 2021 conference,” Nuñez said. “This year, our Aggie scholars showed us that, whether in person or virtual, they are committed to contributing to the research culture at UC Davis and the URC intends to support this important Aggie tradition.”

Despite the lack of an in-person research experience, they said the conditions imposed by COVID-19 provided another opportunity for students.

“This new format of research also brings lots of opportunities, such as learning a new and innovative way of conducting research,” Nuñez said.

Graduate student concerns

The UC Davis Office of Research has provided a set of guidelines to address student concerns that may have resulted from the COVID-19 research ramp-up. Like the sentiments expressed during the town hall, the guidelines state that graduate student researchers should be as communicative as possible with their work group and primary investigator.

Associate Dean of Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, hosted a graduate student town hall on Aug. 19 to hear student concerns.

Hartigan-O’Connor reminded students of the nature of graduate school outside of the classroom, mentioning the value of networking and connections formed between peers, professors and research. 

“You have to be recreating these networks and strengthening these networks now,” Hartigan-O’Connor said. “The networks in the folks that you have around you to help you work through different kinds of challenges you face.”

Hartigan-O’Connor offered examples of networks to graduate students: major professors, students who are more advanced in the program, on-campus resources, graduate studies, graduate chair and/or graduate advisors, students in your cohort and graduate coordinators. 

She told students to reach out and maintain these connections virtually. While these networking conversations come naturally during in-person interactions, Hartigan-O’Connor said, maintaining networks requires more deliberate effort.

“You can email us directly,” Hartigan-O’Connor said. “And you can make Zoom appointments. We’re here to hear what you’re worried about and try to help you think through your concerns as well.”

Anthropology Ph.D. Candidate Neetha lyer addressed concerns regarding qualifying exams given students’ inability to conduct preliminary research for their proposals.

“If you don’t have preliminary research, that’s fine.” Iyer said. “Actually, most people who take their qualifying exam don’t have preliminary data when they’re presenting.”

Iyer also said that the questions students may ask in their proposal or qualifying exam are likely to change following their qualifying exam. According to Iyer, students are advised to think and establish questions they would be asked after accumulating preliminary data.

Committees are understanding and more lenient given the unusual circumstances, Iyer said, and said students should reach out to their committee and PI’s.

Slande Erole, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, said that communication was key for researchers. Brainstorming alternative ways to move forward with a project, he said, could lift the burden off students.

“Advisors may suggest that students transition research methods from mixed methods research to qualitative research,” Erole said.

If labs are not deemed essential and therefore not authorized for in-person operation, the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Duncan Temple Lang said that students should explore other data options and research avenues or wait for their lab to be deemed essential to resume. 

“But as we ramp-up and things get better in terms of the number of infections, more and more labs will be open.” Lang said. “There are many labs that are open because they have time-sensitive experiments going on.”

More detailed information about changes to graduate school research and requirements can be found here

Written by: Aarya Gupta, Hannah Blome — campus@theaggie.org

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