Cameron Pollack / Sun File Photo

University President, Martha E. Pollack, outlined four principles in her most recent announcement to the Cornell community regarding COVID-19.

March 12, 2020

In-Person Class Cancellations Halt Undergraduate Research on Campus

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Undergraduate students in the biological sciences honors program were informed on Wednesday afternoon that they will officially not be allowed to work in laboratories starting March 28, the deadline the University set after which all classes must be held online.

As a part of the honors program, students conduct novel, independent research and then write a formal honors thesis in a specific field of study. As a result of the disruption, participants should plan to collect as much data as possible before spring break, according to an email sent by Laura Schoenle, coordinator of undergraduate research and honors.

Even though aspects of the course will be cut short, students enrolled in Biology 4990: Independent Research in Biology, will receive full credit.

“If you are enrolled in BIOG 4990, you will be able to receive full credit for the course, as we will have passed the 60% time point in the semester when we reach spring break,” Schoenle wrote in an email to biological sciences honors students.

The decision was made in line with the Department of Education’s guidelines for assigning credit in case of a disruption in instruction.

Although students living in off-campus housing may be inclined to continue working on their research projects, Cornell has discouraged working in research labs after March 27.

“I was informed yesterday that Cornell does not want undergrads to continue working in research labs after March 27 even if you are living in off-campus housing and you plan to stay here in Ithaca,” said Scott D. Emr, director of the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, in an email to Weill Institute undergraduate students.

After March 27, honors students are encouraged to work with their laboratory research mentors to continue any data analysis and finish their theses remotely. The timeline for the program will remain the same, with students expected to submit their final papers to their group leader and committee for review by mid-April.

However, honors poster sessions to be held in May have been cancelled and the presentation requirement for honors will also be waived, according to Scheonle.

“I realize these are challenging and stressful times. Please know that the entire university community, including the Bio Sci Honors Committee, has your best interests at heart, and respects the great efforts honors students put towards their research,” Scheonle wrote.

The change in honors thesis policies sparked a variety of responses from students.

Natalie Brown ’20, a Biology and Society major, works in Prof. Minglin Ma’s lab, biological and environmental engineering, pursuing an honors thesis project that investigates therapeutic approaches for diabetes.

“I definitely understand that the decisions to cancel classes and close campus were made with consideration, but research isn’t something you can just immediately pull out of,” Brown said, who, like many students, acknowledged the necessity of the move while struggling to grapple with the effects of it.

Pooja Reddy ’20 is a molecular and cell biology major that conducts research in Prof. Ankur Singh’s lab, mechanical and aerospace engineering. For her honors thesis project, Reddy is studying how underlying health conditions, like metabolic syndrome, affect the effectiveness of vaccines.

In response to class cancellations, Reddy expressed concerns over finishing her experiments in time.

“I planned on completing my experiments over the next 4 weeks to have them ready for my final thesis draft, but now I need to scramble to fit them all in two weeks,” Reddy said. “Having to do this while also saying goodbye to all my friends is super overwhelming and upsetting.”

Claire Malkin ’20, a computational biology major, works in Prof. Toshi Kawate’s lab, molecular medicine, studying the structure of a protein membrane receptor linked to chronic pain.

“I was lucky to have just finished a lot of my data analysis so I’m hoping that I can do work remotely,” she said. “[But] it is upsetting that we don’t get to present our work, and it’s definitely harder to get feedback and continue work in the lab.”

Even though Brown expressed frustration that “many of us were planning to finish getting all of the data we’d like to have during or after Spring Break,” she appreciated steps being taken to accommodate undergraduates in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

“I respect that measures are being taken to address the severity of this pandemic, and I’m happy that we are still able to submit our theses for consideration at all,” Brown said.

Whether these announced changes pertaining to biological sciences honors students will affect all undergraduate students doing research remains unclear.

“For now, there is no specific guidance for students living off-campus,” wrote Bill Loftus, director of administration for the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology, in an email sent to students and employees at the Weill Institute on Wednesday night. “Presently, we do not know if undergrads can continue working in Institute labs after April 6. We are waiting for further clarification from the University.”

Prof. Julia Thom-Levy, vice provost for academic innovation, did not respond for comment by the time of publication.