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Picking up PhD Research After the COVID-19 Quarantine

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.

Graduation Delays?

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.

Psychology