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Tuesday October 19th

Undergraduate students adapt to COVID-19 precautions — both inside the lab and out

<p>Undergraduate students in an on-campus lab before the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring of 2020. Photo courtesy of Delaney Davis.</p>
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Undergraduate students in an on-campus lab before the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring of 2020. Photo courtesy of Delaney Davis.

For STEM majors conducting undergraduate research this semester, labs look different amid COVID-19 restrictions. But students are working with professors to continue their work through the fall. 

Sophomore Melissa Yu, a chemistry and mathematics major, said she started working with the Knight Group, a lab team run under chemistry professor Abigail Knight, in January. But after just two months of working in the lab, Yu, along with the rest of the UNC student body, was sent home. 

“When things shut down originally, everything was uncertain,” Yu said. “I was a little bit worried that I wasn’t going to be progressing as a scientist as much as I would have if I was there in person.”

In May, Yu — along with fellow Knight Group member Delaney Davis — received the chemistry department’s Tommie and Billie Hinton Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which provided each of them with $3,000 for summer research. Their work became entirely virtual due to COVID-19.  

For seven weeks this summer, Yu said she focused on analyzing scientific literature as well as fine-tuning her skills in handling data. Though she said she was initially worried about working remotely from her hometown in New Jersey, she said she now believes that her online experience helped transform her into a more well-rounded scientist. 

“It allowed me to get some background on the field as a whole,” Yu said. “I was able to zoom out and look at what other research had also been published, whereas if I was just working in person, it would’ve been hard for me to have found the time to do that.”

Senior chemistry major Joey Toth is a new member of chemistry professor Alex Zhukhovitskiy’s lab team. 

Toth said he has also taken full advantage of his online part-time research position. 

Under the guidance of his mentor, Toth said he started learning about the fundamentals of density functional theory in June and has since spearheaded the theoretical investigation of their research project. 

Toth said he is scheduled to start participating in in-person research soon, but for now he is still working virtually. Though Toth said he would prefer working in a lab, he said he has enjoyed the flexibility that his online research provides. 

“Because most of the research that I’m doing is remote, I pretty much work on it anytime I have free time,” Toth said. “Some days I’ll be working on it at midnight, past midnight, after dinner, before dinner or really any other chance I get.” 

Yu said the Knight Group, along with many other research labs, created its plan over the summer to resume in-person research in the fall. In setting guidelines regarding work shifts, social distancing and sanitation practices, Davis, Yu and the rest of their research team worked to create policies that would promote a safe lab environment. 

“Each of us have a certain group of people that we are on a shift with, and we are only allowed to go to the lab and interact with the people on our shift,” Davis said. “We are all also wearing masks, staying six feet apart from one another and are making sure that there are no more than three people in a room.”

Though these safety guidelines are a key part of ensuring everyone on the team’s safety, they have posed new difficulties for some student researchers. 

Toth said one of the biggest challenges for him this semester has been not being able to physically work alongside his graduate student mentors. 

“It’s really hard to learn how to do things for the first time without having someone there to show you directly,” Toth said. “That has definitely added to the stress because obviously no one wants to make mistakes, but that’s hard to do when no one’s there to physically show you the ropes.”

Davis said she has been working with her mentor Erin Day, a third year graduate student, for almost two years. Now, due to COVID-19, they have been forced to conduct their research separately. 

“Erin and I have to be six feet apart, and we usually can’t even be in the same room together,” Davis said. “It’s been really interesting having to work almost fully independently this semester.” 

All three of these researchers agree that this season of research has been filled with plenty of trial and error. 

“The biggest thing I’ve learned about research is that pretty much all the time nothing goes the way you originally think it will, and now, during COVID, that idea is even more real,” Toth said. “There’s always going to be troubleshooting whether it’s virtual or in person.”

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