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Amid coronavirus shutdowns, some grad students feel pressure to report to their labs

As the coronavirus outbreak roils university campuses across the world, early-career scientists are facing several dilemmas. Many are worrying about the survival of cell cultures, laboratory animals, and other projects critical to their career success. And some are reporting feeling unwelcome pressure to report to their laboratories—even if they don’t think it’s a good idea, given that any gathering can increase the risk of spreading the virus.

It’s unclear exactly how common these concerns are, but social media posts reveal numerous graduate students expressing stress and frustration at requests to come to work. “Just emailed advisor to say I am not comfortable breaking self isolation to come to lab this week. They emailed … saying I have to come in. What do I do?” tweeted an anonymous Ph.D. student on 16 March who doesn’t have essential lab work scheduled. “My health & safety should NOT be subject to the whims of 1 person. It should NOT be this scary/hard to stand up for myself.”

Many universities, including Harvard, have moved to shut down all lab activities except for those that are deemed “essential,” such as maintaining costly cell lines, laboratory equipment, live animals, and in some cases, research relating to COVID-19. But others have yet to ban nonessential research entirely.

Sometimes, the guidance on whether researchers should keep working is vague or in flux. “Research should continue only to the extent that it can be conducted competently and safely,” the University of Connecticut said in a 12 March statement. “[T]he good health of our research workforce, students, faculty, staff, and animals remain our highest priority.” Then, 5 days later, administrators updated their guidance to note that “the University is expected to maintain social distancing by reducing the density of people working in our research laboratories, facilities, and programs. Researchers will begin immediately to ramp down research activities, including laboratory, animal, and non-therapeutic human subjects research.”

In practice, however, research at the University of Connecticut has continued more or less normally in several labs, according to a graduate student there who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “A lot of the PIs [principal investigators] were like, ‘We can’t really shut down if the university is telling us we need to continue on,’” he says.

He recognizes the importance of tending to cell lines and animals. “My mice don’t know that there’s a pandemic going on,” he says. But he wishes the health of graduate students was valued more highly and that he felt empowered to make his own decisions. “If the university is sending home students and faculty to work from home, and you’re being asked to still go in, it’s hard to not feel like you’re being looked over.”

At the University of Chicago, administrators have advised researchers to spend as little time as possible in the lab, and to limit entrance to labs to those deemed essential personnel. But directives sent from individual PIs have been more varied, says Shi En Kim, a molecular engineering Ph.D. student at the university. Kim says her own PI has clearly communicated to her that the choice of whether to go into the lab is her own, and she hasn’t felt coerced or compelled to tend to any experiments. But in other departments, she has seen more confusion. Some PIs “have encouraged their group members to show up to the lab despite the coronavirus,” she notes.

In the early days of the outbreak, some PIs at Yale University advised their lab employees to go into the lab as little as possible, while others encouraged more or less business as usual, says Kyle Tretina, a postdoc at the university who studies host-pathogen genomics. At that point, the university had announced a stated aim “to keep our campus infrastructure in place for continuity of research,” while also asking faculty and lab directors to encourage their subordinates to work from home when feasible. But on 18 March, Yale announced that labs should shut down all nonessential research activity by the end of the week. Now, “it sounds like everyone is finally getting on board,” says Tretina.

In the midst of all this, many grad students and postdocs have wanted to continue their research. “I haven’t heard of any instances at Yale where a PI was saying, ‘Get in the lab’ to someone who didn’t want to be in the lab,” he says. “They’re mostly just scrambling, trying to make sure nothing’s lost” so that they don’t set back their academic goals or miss out on large chunks of their postdoc training.

Even so, it can be difficult to tell whether such willingness is borne of a personal desire to work on research projects or a perceived need to obey one’s superiors, Tretina admits. Graduate students in particular are in a vulnerable position, he notes, as they often don’t feel like they can contradict their PI.

That’s something Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, a PI at the University of California, Davis, who studies animal behavior, is keeping in mind as she provides guidance to her graduate students throughout the crisis. She has seen reports on social media of graduate students being ordered to go into the lab by their PIs against their wishes, and she believes such behavior is “unconscionable.”

But she also realizes it’s a delicate balancing act for many PIs and their subordinates. Much of her work, and that of her graduate students, involves tending to birds at an open-air field station off campus. Although California residents are under a “shelter in place” order, the care of animals is considered an essential function. So she is allowing her graduate students to tend to the birds while practicing safe social distancing. Outside of that duty, she wants her students to stay home.

“What I’m most concerned about is [my graduate students’] safety,” she says. “That comes first.”

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