Stuck at home under COVID-19 restrictions, undergraduate researchers find silver lining

By Aadhishre Kasat
Department Communications & Student Researcher (Buller)

woman in front of computer screen smiling
Aadhishre Kasat works on her winning poster for the virtual Chemistry Undergraduate Research Symposium from home.

In early March, I was sitting in the Union eating stir-fry, browsing through the multitude of COVID-19 articles. I spent the next hour concerned by something strange in my bowl when I really should have been concerned by the rising number of cases.

The next day, I went to the Buller lab to review spring break plans with my mentor, still unalarmed by the increasing numbers. Instead of going to Florida and spending hours at the ocean, I decided to stay back and dive into the waters of protein engineering. I was thrilled to spend a whole week in my lab-coat and goggles! But alas, the excitement was fleeting.

The atmosphere on campus changed drastically from one of distant possibilities to extreme caution. Later, while cleaning LC-MS vials, acetone made me sneeze. It felt like every head turned toward me, but before I could explain what caused the sneeze, the department’s closing was announced. Suddenly, I was bleaching cultures and quenching reactions, preparing to shut down the lab. The day originally reserved for research was instead spent on a flight back to India.

Coming back home mid-semester, especially to the opposite time zone, meant a lot of changes. It meant being unable to attend lab meetings because they were too early in the morning. It meant having to reorient my entire life while keeping up with classes, being quarantined in my bedroom, and coming up with a feasible remote research plan. Although it was difficult, it also led to rewarding experiences, not just for me, but for almost every undergraduate researcher.

Natalie Feider, a class of 2020 graduate and former member of the Cavagnero lab, worked on a group literature review by finding relevant papers and writing detailed summaries. She said, “Before when I read papers, I read them to find something, I read them briskly, and often didn’t finish reading them at all. Now I have developed the practice of reading papers properly. I have been able to find the gap in knowledge and connect the dots much more easily.”

Kevin England and Anna Allen, rising seniors at the Cavagnero lab, worked on a manuscript. Kevin said, “During this time, I have been able to plan my future experiments and think of contingency plans, as well as learn kinetic and structural modeling using software such as Pymol and Copasi!” Samantha Ausman, a rising senior, as part of her REU program, learned computational chemistry and coding.

Although summer has ended, and to some extent, our motivation to stare at computer screens too, we must be persistent. Dr. Cheri Barta, undergraduate research director, encourages undergraduates to learn poster-making and refine their presentation skills by participating in virtual symposiums or lab meetings. She also encourages them to ask their mentors to set up some experiments for them or give them access to previously collected data. This way, they can analyze the data remotely and continue being involved in experimentation.

“Students can cultivate their communication skills by practicing grant and proposal writing or prepare for the GRE, for students will definitely be asked during graduate school interviews how they used this time,” Barta said. “How did they make progress in research? What skills did they challenge themselves to learn? Students should be prepared to answer such questions.”

Now more than ever, it’s important to celebrate the small accomplishments and stay connected. These are challenging times, but just like diamonds, we too need a little pressure before we can shine.