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Schmidt '21: STEM students can still find research opportunities during the pandemic

COVID-19 has taken a toll on the healthcare system, the job market and the simple ability to conduct activities that once took place in person. This disruption also extends to summer internships and other professional development opportunities for students that went remote or were canceled altogether, depending on the industry or specific experience students were pursuing. Jobs for Computer Science and Political Science majors, for example, may have had a more seamless transition from in-person to online, as many tech companies and congressional campaigns were able to host remote internships. But for many other STEM concentrators, due to the in-person nature of lab work, COVID-19 has completely upended the possibilities. 

Of the internship programs that could not transition to a remote format, many left no other options for summer engagement. A survey from Yello found that 64 percent of summer internships canceled at the outset of the pandemic provided no alternative offer or compensation. Businesses during this time have taken an especially big hit to funds and resources; as a consequence, many cut their in-person internship programs, especially those that offered stipends. This makes sense from a business standpoint, but the repercussions for college students who rely on those internships are large. These summer internships are crucial for STEM students as they provide significant on-the-job experience. Earlier this year, 20 STEM-focused groups from CS to engineering wrote an open letter to employers urging them to rethink the cancellation of internships and research programs. They also noted that dropping these opportunities would disrupt the pipeline into STEM fields, discouraging women and other underrepresented groups from pursuing careers in these industries. 

Unfortunately, in many cases the cancellations are unavoidable under the current circumstances, as much of the work STEM students do must be done in person. Unless one is involved in computational work, like CS, Engineering and some areas of Biology, most of the work must be done in a physical environment.

Consequently, STEM students at Brown have been forced to completely rethink how they perform their work. In addition to classes going remote, students conducting research have either been forced out of their laboratories for some time or have had to adapt their projects to a remote experience. While this has almost certainly been challenging and frustrating, STEM students need not give up all hope of gaining professional experience in their field. Finding a way to participate in science through research and other avenues would be a testament to the spirit of Brown, the drive to contribute and create and the ability to draw positives from  unfortunate circumstances. 

In the summer, with so many labs shut down temporarily, students had to either wait for them to re-open or to think of a completely new way to occupy their time. For many, their adapted plans have taken the form of remote research projects. The Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award program at Brown, which is known to support plenty of in-person, STEM-related projects per year, transitioned to remote projects for this summer. This ensured that plenty of STEM students were still able to conduct research over the summer from the comfort and safety of their homes.

Now, for students that could not transition their projects to remote versions, there is hope that many spaces for doing STEM work are starting to reopen. Some labs have just begun reopening, while others have been open for months to approved students, operating with enhanced safety measures. To continue their projects from where they left off, students are returning to labs despite a worsening pandemic. 

For students who have not begun research yet and were looking to start this fall, the pandemic has seemingly dashed those hopes as well. Many labs are working with limited numbers of undergraduates as graduate students and post-doctoral candidates take priority and must be in the lab for essential activities. However, since seniors graduate in the spring, lab positions may have opened up, including potential opportunities for students to collaborate. Emailing professors and asking about their research and labs is still possible.

STEM students can also best use this time for practicing skills that might otherwise receive less attention if they were in the lab full time. A significant portion of research and working on a project relies on a knowledge base built on basic literary skills. Understanding how to read a scientific article is an important skill to have as a STEM student and going remote means more hours can be invested into developing this skill set. Remote work can also take the form of literature reviews. Additionally, and arguably the most important way STEM students can spend their time now is to summarize their own work as it stands so far. This can help develop perspective on the direction their project is heading. 

Despite the pandemic, the drive to research and make discoveries must persist in STEM students at Brown and elsewhere. Finding ways to do work in the field under current constraints speaks to a greater desire to contribute meaningful information to the rest of the world. Students should either continue in-person research that is crucial to understanding how natural phenomena work, creatively transition to remote projects to engage their minds this fall, or keep hustling to get their foot in the door. The pandemic has presented STEM students with unique challenges and roadblocks in their line of work, but students can find meaningful ways to use their time nonetheless — ultimately making the best of a difficult and uncertain situation.

Rachael Schmidt ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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