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Rethinking the Science Thesis: Rising Seniors Adapt Lab Research Amid Covid-19

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It’s the little interactions that Neuroscience concentrator Alex A. B. Chaumette ’22 misses the most.

As he gears up to work on his senior thesis remotely, the most concerning aspect is the challenge that comes with not being “immediately immersed” in a lab environment, he said.

“Even if we are able to conduct work, it’s not having that lab environment where we can have the spontaneous interactions in the same way that we walk past people in school,” Chaumette said. “Not just to have more structured conversations about the work that we’re doing, but also just to check in with supervisors and develop those relationships that are incredibly important for our research growth, professional growth, depending on the student.”

“I think that’s primarily the thing that students like me are losing the most out of,” he added.

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Laboratories affiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have scaled-down operations since March of last year due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Against this backdrop, science concentrators in the Class of 2022 have been planning and adapting their senior theses with these restrictions in mind. In interviews, juniors reported that the remote environment has affected every aspect of their thesis planning — from topic to execution — with some remaining uncertain what their pandemic-era thesis research is going to look like.

Beyond In-Person Research

At the beginning of this year, Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator Kathryn Tian ’22 decided to switch from a lab-based to literature-based thesis.

“At that point, it was still the peak of Covid, and everything seemed like it was going downhill,” Tian said.

Tian said her new literature-based thesis aligned more closely with her concentration and presented a “safer route” in case the Covid-19 situation took a turn for the worse.

Selena Zhang ’22, a joint concentrator in Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, recalled her concentration advisors telling her about the wide range of research possibilities beyond in-person work.

“When I was concerned about not being able to go into lab, like over J-term or even earlier, I had spoken to both of them and they said that, really, to not worry about not being able to get into labs, and you can still do a lot of things that aren’t experimental, necessarily, like literature reviews, sort of make up really rigorous plan of what you would do,” Zhang said.

Chemical and Physical Biology concentrator Angelina V. “Angie” Shoemaker ’22 was unable to be on campus this semester to access her lab, but she found new ways to conduct research by focusing on data analysis instead of collection.

“My mentor, she’s doing all of the wet lab stuff, and then she’ll send me the data. And I'll just analyze it,” Shoemaker said. “I guess it was nice on the part that if I was in the lab, I wouldn’t have gone into such detail about what the results mean — I guess it would more so just be a lot of data.”

Still, Shoemaker said she has been unable to conduct in-person research for a year now, and her plans for the future remain uncertain.

“I hope this summer, I’ll have time to go in-person and research, but I really don’t know how this is going to turn out,” she said.

Sciences Gone Remote

Beyond the research itself, Chaumette said the pandemic has had an influence on the topics he considered for his thesis in the first place. Covid-19 interrupted his original plans to do community health work internationally during the summer of 2020, which he said reduced his “exposure” to possible inspirations for thesis topics.

“I might have had the ability to travel internationally this past summer, or do other things that might have changed my lab interest, so I think definitely my exposure to other types of projects has been limited by the pandemic,” Chaumette said. “That’s not to say that I’m not incredibly excited about the work that I’m doing, but more that I’ve just settled for a product that I already was excited about.”

However, Zehan Zhou ’22 — who is currently working on a thesis in Chemical and Physical Biology — pointed out that the pandemic and Zoom’s subsequent rise in popularity have actually “reduced the barriers” to accessing research.

“It’s easier to go to conferences, it’s easier to go to meetings, it’s easier to hear great people talk about wonderful scientific ideas that you can use to think about your research,” Zhou said.

Zhou went on to say that any difficulties brought on by lab restrictions could be overcome through meticulous planning and time management. In his opinion, research “isn’t different in comparison to other years.”

Jennifer Y. “Jenny” Wang ’22, a joint concentrator in Music and Neuroscience, said the ease of meeting via Zoom has been beneficial for connecting with her principal investigator and postdocs, although virtual meetings are unable to replicate mentorship in the lab completely.

“It will be a little bit more difficult when I go into the lab, because it won’t be as easy for somebody to stand over me and help, which — since I have not been to the lab for a year — might have been helpful, but we can at least have video calls while I’m in there,” Wang said.

A Coordination Game

Even for those students who have been able to access labs in-person this semester, scheduling lab time in accordance with pandemic restrictions has presented an entirely new challenge.

Wang said that lab capacity restrictions have resulted in the “arduous process” of coordinating with other lab members to schedule times to work.

“We can’t all be there at the same time — you have to register where you’re going to be working and make sure that that’s not in the same space as other people, for safety,” Wang said.

Zhang said she has also struggled with scheduling lab time amid the pandemic.

“The hours aren’t ideal all the time, to be spending my evenings or late afternoons in lab, because I don’t have the freedom to go in if I have a free morning,” Zhang said. “And trying to figure out scheduling my schoolwork between them, having to attend section or office hours while I’m in lab.”

Charles T. Morris ’22, a joint concentrator in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Linguistics, said he was “forced” to live off-campus this semester because the College’s Covid-19 restrictions would have precluded him from accessing his off-campus lab.

“I know levels red and orange, or like the lower levels, you can’t travel more than a 30-minute walk off-campus, which my lab is definitely more than a 30-minute walk off-campus,” Morris said, referring to Harvard’s color-coded reopening levels. “It’s understandable that they can’t predict what percent of the time will be red or orange or purple or whatever.”

“But it’s also a little frustrating in the sense that, knowing that there’s a bit of uncertainty if I live on campus, like ‘Will I be able to do research?’”

—Staff writer Justin Lee can be reached at justin.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Lauren L. Zhang can be reached at lauren.zhang@thecrimson.com.

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