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Undergraduate researchers reflect on work during the pandemic

April 8, 2021
Racheal Nassimbwa working on research at The Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering (IQ) Building on Michigan State's Campus in East Lansing on March 31st, 2021.
Racheal Nassimbwa working on research at The Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering (IQ) Building on Michigan State's Campus in East Lansing on March 31st, 2021. —
Photo by Jillian Felton | The State News

Undergraduate students that were kept out of the lab had to be creative to stay engaged with their projects and continue to learn in a virtual environment. Jeremiah Hutson, a biochemistry and molecular biology sophomore working in a lab studying diabetic retinopathy, set up his own lab on his ping-pong table in his parent’s basement. 

“In my free time I would do a little bit of work in the basement when we set up our ping pong table,” Hutson said. “I kind of took over the whole ping pong table room, and I had this big instrument set up. I wasn't using any chemicals, I was just using water. I basically just used this air compressor and measured flow rates.”

All labs, both graduate and undergraduate, were shut down on Michigan State’s campus when the university halted all in-person instruction in March 2020 due to the coronavirus. Most labs remained closed over the summer, with the exception of a few graduate student labs, which prevented research to continue.

Undergraduate researchers and their mentors had to be creative like Hutson to stay engaged with their research. This included homemade experiments, literature review, work with the entire research group or even coding. 

“It was a great distraction, and kind of like an outlet for what was happening in the world because COVID was, you know, we were all confined and couldn't really do much,” Hutson said. “But it was like an escape. It was something I could do that was cool and that I liked.” Racheal Nassimbwa, medical laboratory sciences senior, was set to finish her work in the HIV research lab this May when she finishes her degree. Instead, Nassimbwa will continue to work in the lab through the end of 2021 because of setbacks in her research due to COVID-19.

Nassimbwa was one of the many students kept out of the labs during the summer, forced to put their research on the back-burner due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She returned to the lab in August when Michigan State reopened a lot of their labs for research to continue her work on HIV.

Nassimbwa said not being able to work over the summer pushed the end date of her research project from May to the end of 2021, but she was still able to do some work over the summer to stay ready while she couldn’t go into the lab.

“That time gave us an opportunity to reflect and just go through the research that has been done by other people elsewhere to see what they're working on, how we can use any information they have or how we can contribute to any information they're looking for,” Nassimbwa said. “Just getting that literature review in our pocket really helped, and when MSU opened back up, I've been able to do my work in the lab. I go to the lab almost three, four days a week and I get some of the work done there.” 

Despite being back in the lab, Nassimbwa said that the work has slowed down considerably because of university COVID-19 restrictions in place that restrict the number of people that can work in a lab at once. 

“Before COVID, you could just walk into the lab and do your work. We didn't have to sign up on this Google calendar to know that it's just going to be two or three people in the lab,” Nassimbwa said. “Now you can only go once (a day), there's not enough space for everybody to be in the lab at the same time.”

Viji Jambunathan, a nutritional science and human biology sophomore, agreed with Nassimbwa, saying that the scheduling with the restrictions in place makes it difficult to conduct lab work at a reasonable pace.

“So if you're an undergrad, you need to have either a graduate student or a professor in your lab when you are working,”  Jambunathan said. “And so this has caused kind of a lot of issues with scheduling, trying to find, make sure the grad student is also available or your professor, someone who can come in to kind of supervise the undergrads. And this is one thing we weren't used to. Last year, we would go in alone all the time.”

New rules and regulations in place for labs operating in-person mirror expectations of other students on-campus right now, including wearing a mask, limiting the number of workers in labs at once, mandatory Spartan health screenings, improved cleaning and waste handling procedures, as well as lab-specific rules that an individual lab might adopt. 

Jambunathan said over the summer, researchers were asked to fill out a document about a safe return to work on campus which explained the new safety measures and regulations. Students also had to complete training through MSU about the new health and safety protocols. 

Nassimbwa said that even though the new regulations and protocols for labs during the pandemic have hurt the timing of her research project, she is honored that she is able to work in the lab at all this year and the pandemic has motivated her more as she studies viral diseases.

“It has just motivated me to keep working because the knowledge or the skills that I get from, even if it's just working on HIV, can be translated to an infectious disease that could happen maybe later in the future, or like what we have right now,” Nassimbwa said.

Even though they enjoy the work in the lab, Nassimbwa and Hutson both said that the course load of their majors and working in the lab has made their lives stressful.

“I've had days where I'm just sitting there and crying,” Nassimbwa said. “But it always goes back to why I started doing this. I kind of motivate myself because I know why I want to do this. And the reasons behind me doing research. I know it's a good experience to have on my resume. But it's also something that I actually want to continue doing.”

Hutson agreed, adding in that time management is key, as well as having other interests outside of school and work. 

“Balancing that is, it's all about time management, and prioritization and getting stuff done that needs to get done,” Hutson said. “And then making sure you don't really fall behind. If you fall behind, you're in trouble, and it happens. And then if you fall behind, you have a plan to get back on the horse.”

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The end goal for all three of these students, like many other undergraduate researchers, is to continue their studies in pursuit of a career in science or medicine.  Nassimbwa said her research as an undergraduate helped her formulate her career plan and figure out exactly what she wants to do.

“My overall goal or like my long-term goal is to be able to work with different organizations but mostly in industry,” Nassimbwa said. “I want to be able to see my research impact the community.”

Hutson and Jambunathan both want to become doctors in the future and said that being able to conduct research as an undergraduate will help them tremendously, even if they do not plan on doing research as a profession. 

“Seeing that whole process, I think, is really educational and informative for anyone who's potentially interested in doing research or going into any educational field in the future,”  Jambunathan said. “In medicine, I do hope to continue doing research and I think it was really a great opportunity to learn more about the process.”

Hutson said working in research has helped him understand the critical thinking process to find the desired solution and given him freedom within science that is not always available in classes. 

“Just like in research when you're presented with a problem you have to think in a certain algorithmic manner to really understand the root and then taking steps forward from that problem like you do in research, how you can treat that the most effectively to get the desired outcome,” Hutson said. “It really ties in perfectly like that. And just getting started early like that, it helps. I feel like it's helped me so much to kind of really understand there's more than just classes. And I don't know, I think it's really cool, I really do. It's something I've grown to really enjoy at Michigan State.”


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