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Resuming Research Guidance details students’ return to the lab bench as Brown offers remote research opportunities

University Stage 2 Resuming Research guidelines outline procedures for requests to return to labs as CURE courses, UTRAs and remote research continue

After most University labs slipped into a lull in March following the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, undergraduates are anxious to partake in hands-on research investigations once again. But with a pandemic still pushing onward, popping into a laboratory at one’s whim is no longer feasible.

Resuming research for undergraduates in the laboratory

The University has updated its Stage 2 Resuming Research guidelines, most recently on Aug. 26, to reflect necessary steps that labs must take to request permission for undergraduates to return. Students currently studying remotely can work with their research principal investigators to ask for approval to resume in-lab research after their return to campus in the coming weeks, according to Associate Dean of Biology Undergraduate Education Katherine Smith.

“You really need to ask faculty members about their opportunities to be in person,” Smith advised students looking for new lab experiences during the Undergraduate Research in Biology event over Zoom Sept. 3. Students should inquire about possible openings in labs but remain mindful of current University research and remote learning guidelines.

But the current number of undergraduates receiving permission to come back has been limited due to these safety regulations. Roughly 30-35 undergraduates are working in labs at Brown and off campus, said Vice President for Research and Professor of Mathematics Jill Pipher, adding that about half of those who requested to return to campus for research were actually students preparing to enter their first year of graduate school.

“Right now, the biggest limiting factor is the population density in labs and buildings,” Pipher said; each person must be allotted at least 150 square feet of space. “I’m afraid that what these density requirements mean is that there will be limited opportunities for undergraduates to be physically present in labs.”

A project’s pertinence to the work of post-undergraduate lab members, grants or publication is another factor that may potentially warrant approval of a request to resume undergraduate research.

“Even though we know how important lab research is to undergraduates and how critical it is to Brown’s education mission, we have to give priority at this point to people who cannot graduate or cannot transition to the next point in their career without fulfilling a research requirement, so that’s largely the early-career researchers and graduate students,” Pipher said.

The proposals should also outline protocols for training that would usually require people to work together in a confined space, according to the Resuming Research guidelines, along with potential alternate training methods that allow for social distancing. These include opting for virtual instruction, using a barrier or limiting side-by-side instruction to under 15 minutes when possible. Even when researchers are together in different parts of the lab, a video stream could be used to help model how to do an experiment, Pipher said.

Once researchers do submit requests to bring back undergraduates, they can expect to hear back about the status of their proposals within 3-7 days after the submission deadlines at the end of every two weeks, the first September deadline having been Sept. 4. Some proposals submitted throughout the summer have already been approved.

Proposals will be reviewed by a team including Pipher, relevant academic department chairs or research center directors, relevant subcommittees belonging to the researcher’s building and Environmental Health and Safety personnel. Final approval will be granted by Provost Richard Locke P'18 and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow '79. 

Anyone permitted to return to their lab must then sign and abide by the COVID-19 Campus Safety Policy and undergo safety training as instructed. 

Among the many safety regulations researchers must follow, Pipher said “they really need to be wearing a mask when they’re inside a University building at all times unless they are sitting alone in an office” or alone in a lab, “because you don’t know when you might encounter another person.” 

When it comes to research in the field, which may entail scooping up specimens or samples outdoors or driving to research sites, researchers must still wear their masks and remain socially distant. 

Although the University’s guidelines have been updated over time as public health and medical regulations in Rhode Island have evolved, “we are not intending to move into another stage” of research soon, Pipher said. The University will monitor the spread of COVID-19 when students return to universities and schools throughout the state and may reassess at a later date. 

The state has already transitioned to Phase 3 of reopening, but research guidelines still correspond to the University’s Stage 2 Resuming Research guidelines, which are similar in many aspects to Rhode Island’s Phase 2 guidelines. If the state were to revert back to Phase 2, some lab policies, like density limits, would stay the same.

Engagement in research coursework and funded opportunities

Within the biology department, independent studies are continuing to be offered as usual, and the guidelines for this coursework and for senior honors theses are not changing. Faculty advisers and research mentors are helping students find creative ways to fulfill requirements remotely for this research work, Smith wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Some of these options for seniors include substituting the standard research requirement in the bachelor of science in biology concentration with related independent studies, biology capstone courses or course-based undergraduate research experience courses, commonly referred to as CURE courses.   

“There are many creative ways to have an inquiry-based scholarly experience, in any discipline, in a remote setting,” Smith wrote, referencing the Undergraduate Research and Experiential Opportunities document available through the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning that details alternative research options for students across departments.

Aside from CURE courses, other academic opportunities include courses centered around an aspect of research through the Cogut Institute for the Humanities’ Collaborative Humanities Initiative and the Brown Ethics and Responsible Conduct of Research course about properly performing research. Other research possibilities range from experiment-based options, such as assisting lab members with designing experiments, analyzing computational data or posing research questions that students could study through survey responses, as well as writing options, such as literature reviews and multimedia scientific communication. “The (Office of Biology Undergraduate Education) has already consulted on several project ideas for fall where students will work with lab groups remotely on data-based work, advanced literature reviews” and other possibilities, Smith wrote. 

The University’s Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards remain a means of funding student research during the semester, even if some of these projects must adapt to a remote setting, and any in-lab research must be in accordance with the University’s Resuming Research guidelines, according to Associate Dean of the College for Undergraduate Research and Inclusive Science Oludurotimi Adetunji

UTRAs were offered this summer as well, but instead of awardees presenting their findings at the annual in-person Summer Research Symposium, their virtual posters were made available through the Brown Digital Repository, if students wished to include their work. Following the summer program and transition to remote projects, the “feedback we got at the end for students that were engaged in UTRA-sponsored research was pretty positive, both from faculty and students,” Adetunji said. “We were very happy that (students) still had a very productive summer.” 

“They were able to figure out a way, a unique way, to still get themselves involved in research,” Adetunji added. “We’re trying to navigate this brave new world, and it seems that we’re able to do that successfully.”



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