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As the COVID-19 pandemic tears through the United States, this strikingly challenging year is shaped by the growing number of casualties and widespread unemployment. In addition to these devastating ramifications, the pandemic also brought to a halt much of scientific research that was not related to the deadly virus.
March saw temporary closures of many university laboratories, including those on Northeastern’s campus in Boston. For many graduate students at the College of Science, these several months of suspended science have proved to be a trying time.
“I paused my research for about 3 months,” said Letícia Angelini, a PhD candidate in the Biology program. “My research mostly depends on [laboratory] bench work, so I, unfortunately, could not make much progress during the time I spent at home.”
Tim Duerr, also a Biology PhD candidate, was one of the few graduate students still allowed to come to the lab during the quarantine months, but not to do research. He helped take care of the lab’s colony of water salamanders. The salamanders had human company in the lab every day, unlike their attendant. “Occasionally I’d see people in the building, but most days I did not. The only interaction I had with people on campus is with the University police officers that let me in the building each day,” said Duerr.
For Duerr, running his experiments on salamander limb regeneration and socializing with his labmates are the best parts of his work, but the quarantine erased those enjoyable activities. “So it has been very disheartening and lonely in the lab,” added the salamander scientist.
Back to the lab
Now, Massachusetts is reopening and researchers have returned to Northeastern’s campus. But the pandemic is far from over, and it is critical to continue observing the safety guidelines that are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines are central to research resumption at Northeastern.
Before returning to the lab, researchers had to submit a safety plan and have it approved by the university’s Environment, Health, and Safety office. They also completed a safety training model on practices to reduce transmission of the virus. Finally, all scientists must wear masks and practice social distancing while in the lab.
Brandon Miller, a PhD researcher at the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, described that he and his labmates work in shifts, ensuring that the lab occupancy is at half of its pre-COVID-19 capacity. Their lunch breaks are staggered, too.
“Additionally, we change our gloves and lab coats more frequently than before,” said Miller.
Working from Home
With the labs locked down, graduate students strove to stay productive while working from their living rooms – which often came with complications.
“Meetings with my group have been challenging,” said Amin Abou Ibrahim from the Physics program. “Meetings and discussions via Skype may not always be ideal.”
Laboratory scientists found themselves adjusting to an unfamiliar work environment. Brandon Miller shared that his writing-heavy quarantine workload kept him looking at a computer screen for an unusually long time. “My eyes would be so strained by the end of the day and it was harder for me to focus as the day went on,” said Miller.
Staying at home can undermine not only productivity, but also mental health. Homebound researchers shared their strategies for mitigating cabin fever and anxiety.
“I think the best thing to do to maintain good mental health is exercising,” said Letícia Angelini, who went on plenty of runs while socially distancing and wearing a mask. Summer Harvey, a PhD candidate in Psychology, agrees. An avid runner, Harvey increased her mileage to 50-60 miles a week during the quarantine. This impressive workout regimen (the distance between Boston and Providence!) may not be feasible for most non-athletes, but it helped Harvey keep her mental health in check.
Non-exercise ways to maintain mental well-being can include picking up a new hobby or rediscovering an old one – like cooking. “My new quarantine hobby is cooking traditional Colombian recipes (passed down from my mother),” said Andrea Unzueta Martinez, a PhD candidate at the Department of Marine and Environmental Science at Northeastern’s Nahant campus.
Even in quarantine, graduate students managed to meet their milestones. Tim Duerr, who passed his PhD candidacy exam over a Zoom call, admitted that this remote format was less stressful than a traditional presentation to a roomful of dissertation committee members. “The worst part of it all was being unable to celebrate with people afterwards,” shared Duerr.
Some PhD candidates even completed their programs. “I already defended [in the] end of May via Zoom and it went well,” said Amin Abou Ibrahim, who now holds a PhD in Physics.
However, this lengthy hiatus in research is likely to delay dissertation completion for some College of Science students who are still collecting data. Those whose research is “wet lab”-based, or relies on conducting experiments in a laboratory setting, are at a particular disadvantage. “I feel it’ll be very hard to catch up on the experiments I need to perform in order to finish my project,” said Letícia Angelini, who studies how bacterial communities grow.
Brandon Miller at the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department echoes this sentiment. His research focuses on synthesizing chemical compounds that are typically produced by bacteria – and those experiments must be done in the lab. Because of the quarantine and the current reduced work schedule, Miller predicts that his graduation will be delayed by at least six months.
PhD students who can conduct their research remotely are more optimistic. For Summer Harvey, the campus closure has not been too disruptive to the dissertation progress. The Psychology PhD candidate, who studies accuracy of personality judgments, spent the quarantine crafting her dissertation proposal – the research plan for the rest of her program.
With the campus reopening, Harvey expects to stay on track with her research progress. She will start conducting experiments with human participants this fall, which can also be done remotely if necessary. “I’d just have to figure out a way to run participants virtually, which wouldn’t be impossible,” said Harvey, adding that the logistics behind this option are still not ideal.
Working from home was also not a hindrance for some graduate students in the final stages of their programs who have already acquired their data. For Andrea Unzueta Martinez, the finishing line is in sight despite the quarantine. Martinez, whose research is about host-associated microbiomes in marine creatures, used the time in the lockdown to analyze data and write her dissertation chapters, and she expects to graduate on time.
Hopes for the Future
Back at the bench, Northeastern’s PhD researchers are facing limited work hours and reduced density in the labs. Although rubbing elbows with labmates helps create an atmosphere of collaboration, in-person teamwork gives way to public health regulations. Scientists are resting their hopes for research continuity on the new rules.
“I really hope the safety measures we’ve been applying in the lab can prevent us from having another lockdown,” said Letícia Angelini, expressing many researchers’ wishes.
Northeastern’s guidelines on the reopening can be found here.
Fifteen undergraduate students from the University of Connecticut McNair Scholars program engaged with Northeastern University over Zoom to learn more about Northeastern’s Master’s and PhD programs. The students had the opportunity to speak with students, faculty, and staff representing various STEM disciplines including biology, computer science, mechanical & industrial engineering, chemical engineering, psychology, bioinformatics, biotechnology, cybersecurity, civil & environmental engineering, and marine & environmental sciences.
The McNair Scholars program is one of eight of the US Department of Education-funded TRIO programs. The program is named after Ronald E. McNair, a NASA astronaut and physicist who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986. Prior to his death, he was the second African American to fly in space when he flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B in 1984. TRIO programs are open to low-income, first-generation undergraduate students, and individuals from underrepresented populations. At UConn, McNair Scholars have a faculty mentor, conduct and present research, and participate in workshops, seminars, and conferences to help them achieve an advanced degree.
The students were able to seek advice on the admissions process, interview weekend, research funding, life on campus and in Boston, and the University’s diversity initiatives and support systems. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were unable to tour research facilities and the campus in person as previous cohorts of McNair Scholars have been able to do in the past, but Northeastern hopes to welcome McNair Scholars from UConn and across the country as visitors and incoming Master’s and PhD students in the future.
Alumna Delia Mocanu is a double husky and 2014 PhD recipient in Physics. During her time at Northeastern, she developed a passion for network science, working on data projects with incredible scale. Now at Facebook, she finds herself working on one of the largest data systems in history— News Feed.
She participated in a written engagement with the Northeastern COS on going industry, why epidemiology works better in the dark, and the most important skill to succeed in data science.
Growing up, did you find that you were interested in physics? Or did that interest develop later in life?
I grew up in Romania and I did not like Physics much at the time because it was too formulaic. In a weird twist of events, as a freshman in college here in the US, I actually switched from Chemical Engineering to Physics/Math double major..
At some point I realized that Physics made a lot of sense for me and I just enjoyed pure science more than engineering. I liked the rush of solving problems from scratch.
I jumped around a bit until I landed on what I wanted to do. I was originally curious about Astroparticle Physics and I wanted to know everything about how the universe worked. During my first year at NEU, it became clear that I was seeking something more fast-paced. [The irony is not lost on me, this was very antithetical to why I switched from Engineering to Physics four years earlier.]
At Northeastern, seeing the kind of work Barabasi and Vespignani were doing, I immediately recognized that this interdisciplinary field (Network Science/Complex Systems) was more aligned to my existing interests and personal values.
Is there anything that stands out about your graduate/Phd experience?
My advisor really emphasized the idea of ownership, and I liked that we were held to very high standards. Looking back at it now, I always felt like what I was putting my time in truly mattered. Prof. Vespignani was very good at instilling energy to the group.
Did your experience working in Professor Vespignani’s MOBS Lab and other research facilities shape your career decisions?
Absolutely. What I cherish about this PhD experience is that we felt very plugged in; we had well funded projects that were designed to solve real problems, in real time.
We loved doing something that mattered. I was simultaneously learning something and solving a problem involving millions of people. Little did I know I was going to reach billions later.
You’re currently working at Facebook as a Data Scientist. What does your current role entail?
I work in News Feed, and I’ve been here since I started at Facebook. What makes this role especially stimulating is building solutions that work at scale. I still very much rely on the thought processes and models of the world that I adopted during my PhD. Right now, I couldn’t imagine a better place to apply these.
However, my favorite part of my job is actually identifying opportunities. When I find something worth investing in, I put all my energy into making it a reality. That last part is the most rewarding and it is really more about general problem solving than it is about any specific math/engineering skill.
Have you spoken to friends or colleagues about Professor Vespignani’s COVID-19 models and what they are trying to accomplish? Has it been a source of pride, frustration, or a little of both?
To my friends mostly, yes. I touched epidemiology models a bit during grad school. At the time I remember thinking ‘I hope this software makes a difference someday,’ but I never thought we’d see something like this. Healthy skepticism is good, but I’m quite surprised to see the amount of pushback against these predictions at large, so I would say this has caused a bit of frustration.
Frankly, epidemiology is best when you don’t know that it exists and when the predictions don’t come true. Otherwise, it is not too dissimilar from weather forecasting; every modeling exercise comes with error bars, but one can tell the difference between a major hurricane and a light summer rain. However, in epidemiology you ‘can’ actually turn the would-be hurricane into a light summer rain. Taking action invalidates the original prediction, that’s really the goal. Whereas if your predictions come true, you have failed; that’s the curse of this field.
Computational epidemiology has advanced so much in the past two decades, that it’s quite challenging to establish a common language even with other highly technical folks.
What do you find most rewarding about data science?
It’s the most rewarding job you can possibly imagine. It’s always changing and you are constantly learning new things or building new tools so that you can iterate faster.
It’s not just about the act of doing the analysis, but more about where the data fits. A lot of data science is problem solving, which is what I liked about Physics in the first place. You don’t have a solution and no one has ever solved this problem before. There are no instructions and every single day feels like a journey. That dynamic aspect is very important to me.
What was the most important thing you learned at Northeastern?
Professor Vespignani wanted nothing short of perfection. He would sometimes ask you to iterate on the same chart a dozen times before it felt right. It’s about communicating this data in the best way possible. If I have to repeat the same steps several times before I get it right, then I do it, and I think it’s worth it. As a result, I do notice when others take shortcuts.
I can’t stress this enough: the analysis is not an end in itself.
Is there advice you would give to students who are interested in this field or the type of work you’re doing now?
Don’t be afraid of change, your interests will continue to evolve over time. Look at your PhD program as a time in your life to discover what you like doing and work with your advisor through that process, as they should guide you in making the most out of your career.
Your goal in academia is to publish papers and advance knowledge, while you may not necessarily implement them right away, and that’s ok. If you choose the industry path, your focus will be on the application itself. The optimal mathematical solution may need a 20-fold simplification so that you can enable the rest of the team to be part of it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I do want to acknowledge the fact that Northeastern did an incredible job bringing professors from other universities and building great research programs, and not just in network science.
It’s incredible. I do think that I was very lucky to be part of Northeastern because that sort of environment so focused on research is very, very important. I really loved it.
ASBMB Chapter President Evan Mun and Vice President Julian Amirault made their final year before graduation count, filling it with a variety of professional development and social activities for the benefit of students with a true passion or even just a budding curiosity for biochemistry and molecular biology. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) recently recognized them for their efforts, awarding the Chapter the ‘Outstanding Chapter of the Year’ honor. There are about 120 Chapters nationally, and the Chapter had last received the designation in 2016.
In order to successfully pull off their many achievements, the two needed to work hand in hand with the rest of their executive board, consisting of Ariella Bourdeau, Anders Lindberg, Kathleen Merritt, and Jared Subiono. One of their most complex events of the academic year involved hosting the ASBMB Northeast Regional Meeting, which was attended on NU campus in November 2019 by approximately 100 undergraduate attendees from 14 different schools, and included a poster competition with judges from 14 different institutions. Members of the Roxbury Community College Chapter, which is their Minority-Serving Institution ASBMB partner Chapter, were also very important in organizing and executing the event successfully. The NU students were able to take advantage of their experience from the past, having successfully hosted the event the four previous years.
The ‘Outstanding Chapter’ award also recognized the Chapter’s commitment to organizing a diverse set of group activities, as well as the individual excellence within the Chapter’s 140+ members. Their faculty advisor, Prof. Kirsten Fertuck, is confident that this fall their new president, Ariella Bourdeau will continue the strong tradition of the Chapter, with many new ideas for the coming year.