Lukas Flippo

Many undergraduate students who are not living on campus are continuing to participate in remote STEM research at Yale and are confronting unique challenges in completing their projects.

While some Yale labs are open to undergraduate researchers who live on campus, it is up to the lab’s principal investigator to decide whether to accommodate undergrads in person, according to Associate Dean of Science Education Sandy Chang.

It can be a challenge to open research labs to undergrads, since all researchers have to adhere to social distancing and maximum occupancy guidelines. Even if a lab is open to some undergraduate students, any undergrads who are remote — including almost all sophomores — are not allowed to do in-person research. All of these challenges mean that many undergraduates are starting or continuing research projects without doing any work in the physical lab space.

“Obviously we want science to continue no matter how we do it,” Chang said. “But … we need to get back to the lab … for undergrads to enjoy the whole gamut of the scientific process.”

While all labs are affected by the pandemic, adapting to remote research takes very different forms across departments.

In the spring of 2020, Zack Andalman ’23 had been building a control system for a physics apparatus called a magneto-optical trap with physics professor Nir Navon’s Ultracold Quantum Matter Lab. He described the project as a “very hands-on, physical thing … [with] lots of electronics.” So when he went home for spring break and did not return to campus for the rest of the semester, he had to pause the entire project while it was still unfinished.

“It’s currently sitting in the lab right now,” Andalman said. “It was just impossible for me to continue working on it.”

Since spring break, he has started two new research projects — a control software and an arbitrary waveform generator — which are programming projects with no hands-on components.

Not all in-person research projects had to be left behind. Chang explained that a common pattern for transitioning wet lab work to remote is to have undergrads work on data analytics from previous in-person experiments.

“The undergrads were taught how to reduce this data and analyze this data,” he said. “And all of them were able to participate at least in part of the scientific process.”

Eric Sun ’23 is an undergraduate who had been conducting his own wet lab experiments in the Xiao Lab at the Yale Stem Cell Center before spring break. But since he has left campus, he can only do bioinformatics work remotely. Since there are some grad students and postdocs working in-person in the lab, he is still able to design his own experiments, have the people in the lab execute the experiment and analyze the data they generate.

“If you have the possibility to do data analysis, which is an extremely important tool for all fields of science, it’s not that bad at all,” Sun said. “You can learn a lot of skills that are applicable.”

And still other types of research experienced no change in research direction when their work went remote.

 Xavier Ruiz ’22, who is creating a simulation environment to test robot navigation in the Interactive Machines Group, did not have to adapt much to the remote circumstances.

“All of my tasks involve creating virtual objects and painting them virtually,” Ruiz said. “There would really be no need to be in person.”

Similar to Ruiz, Emma Levin ’23, who is working in the Seto Lab, has never even stepped foot in her research building. Her work involves analyzing landslide susceptibility models, which she can do entirely virtually. Since most of the data she uses in her models come from sources like satellite imagery and news reports, her research does not require anyone to be in the lab collecting data.

But even when the research itself has not changed, there are aspects of in-person lab interaction that are lost when undergrads are doing research remotely.

“The spontaneity of science, excitement of why we do science, that’s missing,” Chang said. “And I don’t know how to get that back just through video conferencing.”

Chang leads a research lab which employed remote students over the summer, so he noticed the differences between remote and in-person research firsthand.

He explained that many of his colleagues also miss interacting with their undergraduate students in the lab, and that there are some research “intangibles” which cannot be replicated in a remote setting.

“One of the most important things I have to say in terms of research is that undergrads learn how to fail,” Chang said. “If you’re fed data, you’re not going to fail doing online research.”

Many undergrads also mentioned missing elements of an in-person experience, whether that be working with lab resources, forming relationships with other researchers or learning from graduate students and professors.

Even students who do not need to be physically in the lab for their work share these concerns.

“It’s really valuable to kind of develop a network and have a set of people who’ll vouch for you,” Ruiz said. “And I think that that’s something that’s kind of lost in the virtual setting.”

But despite the downsides of virtual research, all of the undergraduates the News spoke with still find value in the work that they do.

“It’s very important to develop skills like ‘How do I properly ask this biological question?’ ‘How do I set up the right experiments?’ ‘Do I actually understand what my data is even telling me?’” Sun said. “These are things that you can still learn without actively carrying out the experiment.”

Yale is currently in Phase 3 of Research Reactivation, which allows some undergraduate students to participate in research while abiding by all public health guidelines.

Olivia Fugikawa | olivia.fugikawa@yale.edu