Letter: What research looks like for graduate students on campus during COVID

In June 2020, the Chemistry department began its return to research. The stated plan was to begin with one third capacity and work our way up to 100 per cent capacity for September. Eight months later, we are still at limited capacity, and while research is ongoing, it's anything but normal. Doors are locked, collaborators are gone and so many emails go unanswered. There’s been no talk of changing this situation since August and the frustration continues to build.

So what does life look like for a graduate student doing research on campus? At its busiest, a bit like this:

I get in for work at 8:30 a.m. because we have to be out of the building at 6 p.m.. I planned my experiments out the night before because we don’t have flexibility if things run long. Work that requires eight hours at the lab bench just isn't feasible right now.

We’ve run out of a certain chemical in our lab. Normally I could just walk and get it from our supply room. Now we submit an online request, wait to hear that it's ready, and pick it up in the one hour window twice a day. It takes at least a day for the order to be filled so I’m not getting that for today. Better make new plans.

I check my email hoping to hear back from a collaborator. It's been three weeks of nothing. No luck but I’m not one to talk. I only click emails I know I don’t need to respond to, everything else can be dealt with later. Maybe everyone is doing this? A coworker is complaining again about how it's taken two months to contact a facility we can see from our office window. I wish I could help but I can't.

There’s a seminar on Zoom I want to watch but I can't afford to lose an hour and a half of work. I listen on one earbud while working. I eat lunch alone at my desk near the lab even though we aren’t supposed to. We asked for plastic dividers to separate our desks but were denied.

I have samples to drop off at another lab on campus. It's taken a few weeks to get the schedules lined up for this to work. At the specified time, I leave my unmarked box of samples on a public bench and walk to the other side of Main Mall. I send a text, and a technician comes out of the locked building to grab them while wearing gloves. We don’t chat.

And then other times everything crawls to a halt. When no one responds to emails, when nothing gets delivered and collaborations have all dried up, there just isn’t work to do. Those are the weeks when I’m stuck at home feeling trapped at making no progress towards graduating. Powerless.

This isn’t how I wanted to spend the last year of my PhD, but this is how I will remember it. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I don’t have young kids that make doing research under a rigid schedule a nightmare. I have a quiet space and a desk at home to work from, which most grad students don’t.

The return to research seems to have been primarily a return to being on campus, not getting work done. It's no one's fault, none of us thought it would last this long, but maybe we were a bit too optimistic about reopening.

Maybe if we had spent more time planning on ways to connect and strengthen our digital research relationships, and less time worrying about how best to sanitize a doorknob when using public doors (a real conversation as part of the reopening process), we would be a bit better off. The focus now seems to be how to run classes and labs in the upcoming semesters, but still no talk of getting research space back to normal.

At the end of the day, I hope we learn from these mistakes and make our community more resilient for next time. But I also hope we never need to implement these procedures again at UBC.

Taylor Wright is a 4th year PhD candidate in the UBC Chemistry Department focusing on materials research.