Ben Parker / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Student researchers, who normally work in labs advised by faculty, face an uncertain future for their work in the light of COVID-19.

March 25, 2020

COVID-19 Complicates Student Research Plans, But Opens Some New Doors

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On March 13, Kimaya Raje ’20 walked into the Laboratory of Neurobiology of Learning and Memory to collect data for her senior honors thesis, conscious of the clock ticking toward spring break.

“This month, a lot of my rats would be finishing their training, so I would get some data,” Raje told The Sun. “I was really excited to see how that would all play out, but unfortunately, with [only two weeks left], I had to really cut down.”

“I was more aware of the fact that my time in the lab mattered more now than before,” she continued.

Although Raje didn’t know it then, this would be her last day ever in the lab she had worked at since her freshman year. Later that evening, President Martha E. Pollack announced that classes were canceled as of 5 p.m., and undergraduate students were advised to leave campus as soon as possible.

On March 15, the University announced a sharp reduction of all “nonessential” research that uses campus facilities, issuing a narrow set of guidelines under which some projects could go on. It defined critical research as projects involving the maintenance and care for live organisms, equipment or other expensive materials, as well as research on COVID-19.

As a result, across dozens of research labs at Cornell, professors and graduate students are facing significant challenges — but also implementing novel solutions to adapt to a new normal.

At the Virtual Embodiment Lab, which studies how people’s behavior changes when using different virtual mediums, researchers are severely limited by not being able to meet in-person. Much of their research involves putting participants in virtual reality headsets and monitoring their behavior in close proximity.

“We’re trying to find different solutions for this; we’re looking to see if we can get two participant populations with people who are just out in the world who own those headsets,” said Prof. Andrea Stevenson Won, communication, the director of the VEL. “We’re just trying to scramble and see how we can use the time right now in the best way possible, but it’s definitely been extremely, extremely disruptive.”

At the Business Simulation Lab, researchers are dealing with the pandemic not only by transferring their existing projects to online Zoom sessions — but also by using it as an opportunity to ask new, innovative questions.

“No doubt, participants will act somewhat differently over Zoom than in person,” lab manager Brad Turner wrote in an email to The Sun. “But that difference will itself be an object worthy of study as the work world shifts, perhaps lastingly, to more digital collaboration arrangements.”

Turner said that the newfound state of widespread social isolation opens just as many opportunities for research as it does closes. For instance, the lab plans to explore questions ranging from how people react to crisis to the effect of “shared” snacking or drinking on forming social connections.

However, for humanities disciplines, COVID-19 has had a more obviously negative impact on projects, as their research is less easily transferred online. According to Prof. Paul Fleming, comparative literature, the director of the Society for the Humanities, many researchers depend on fieldwork, archival work and travel for their projects — all of which must be put on hold during the pandemic.

“As for the long-term effects, we will have to wait and see, but I am most concerned about the research of graduate students and assistant professors, where time is limited and so valuable,” Fleming wrote in an email to The Sun. “[F]or graduate students, this is an especially distressing time: in what is already a very difficult academic market, the suspension of field work and archival research at crucial phases in the dissertation process can be devastating.”

For example, many graduate students working in the Cornell Phonetics Laboratory have lost their participant pool, as they rely primarily on Cornell undergraduates to participate in studies. While some computational projects can be continued remotely, many are difficult to transfer to a digital medium.

“They both require special equipment or too controlled of an environment to be very feasible over something like Mechanical Turk,” wrote Katherine Blake, grad. “We’re all just trying to do what we can from home, and meet with our advisors over Zoom to check in and/or commiserate!”

While each lab is facing its own unexpected hurdles, all have abided by the University’s decision to shut down research facilities and minimize the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“Even though it made me really sad to close the lab, it was absolutely unquestionably the right decision, and it’s really necessary,” Won told The Sun. “I don’t disagree with the University’s decision to close down at all. We just all have to cope with it as best we can.”