IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

On March 13, U of T announced that it would be cancelling in-person courses for undergraduate and graduate students, but that research operations would continue. “Faculty members have a responsibility to maintain the operations of laboratory and research environments,” reads the statement

Almost immediately, confusion ensued among research staff, postdoctoral fellows, visiting scientists, and graduate students across U of T.  

Days later, on March 17, U of T officials stated that lab-based research operations must be shut down by March 20 at 5:00 pm, with the exception of time-sensitive projects under the approval of the Incident Management Team, or projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But before U of T made this call, research staff and graduate students were left in limbo. 

Some researchers received directions from their respective faculties, departments, or research supervisors to remain home if possible, or work in the lab during off-peak hours. In addition, several departments advised principal investigators (PIs), or heads of research groups, to move group meetings online, prepare contingency plans for experiments, and accommodate students who feel unsafe coming into work. 

Researchers at U of T-affiliated hospitals have also received additional advisories. 

On March 16, the University Health Network (UHN) suspended “non-essential on-site research activities” until April 6. The UHN noted that projects related to COVID-19, studies essential to clinical care, and those that have “significant cost- or time-related implications” will remain active, but in-person access will be limited to “essential personnel” who have been tasked with maintaining facilities, instrumentation, or looking after animal colonies.

“We all have a pile of papers to write and data to analyze,” wrote Dr. Bradly Wouters, Executive Vice-President Science and Research at UHN, in an email to PIs at UHN on March 12. “Stay home, use the time valuably and let’s all see a bump in publication productivity over the next 6 months.”

The Varsity contacted graduate students across various science departments at U of T to determine how their departments, labs, and supervisors are responding to COVID-19. 

Mixed signals: graduate students received little direction from departments, PIs

Lee*, a public health graduate student, said that their PI initially expected their team to come into the lab every day amid cancellation announcements, even though Lee’s lab does not require wet-lab or on-site experiments.  

“My PI has given us no direction on whether we’re to come in but it seems like the expectation is yes,” wrote Lee to The Varsity. Lee noted that they felt their PI’s message to lab members “seemed to downplay the situation.” 

Similarly, Alex*, a biology graduate student, wrote to The Varsity that while their PI encouraged lab members to take precautions, like washing their hands often, they still expected students to work in the lab. 

“[They want] us to do more work just in case we won’t be able to in the future. For example if we become sick and need to self-isolate,” Alex wrote. “[They think] there’s less distractions now since we don’t have as much TA work.”

“I am concerned about getting infected but since it’s worse in older people I’m more concerned about getting infected and then infecting others,” Alex noted. 

Following U of T’s announcement on March 17, both Lee and Alex’s PIs responded by either telling them to stay home, or to make preparations to work from home. 

In a comment to The Varsity, the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union (UTGSU) wrote that they have been communicating with administration regarding lab closures.

“The UTGSU Executives are disappointed that it took so long for the University to take this step, but remain advocates for safe working conditions for our members.”

Prioritizing health and safety: “It’s been instilled in the lab culture”

While some graduate students felt frustrated at a lack of response from their supervisors, several graduate students told The Varsity that their PIs have taken extra steps to support their lab members during the pandemic. 

Chemistry PhD candidate JoAnn Chen wrote to The Varsity that her PI had not explicitly said anything about COVID-19, but her lab’s culture has always made it possible for students to stay home when they are feeling sick.

“In my lab, the students have decided [that] we’ll come in when we have scheduled instrument time, but otherwise, we won’t be coming to lab,” Chen wrote on March 13. “Our supervisor has always been accommodating in terms of sick days and vacation, so we were able to decide as a group, but in other labs, the PI probably needs to say something.”

After U of T’s shutdown notice for non-essential lab work on March 17, Chen’s PI informed lab members of plans to shut down instruments. 

Molly Sung, also a chemistry PhD candidate, is scheduled to defend her thesis on April 7. “I have my PhD defense coming up – the next group meeting was supposed to be my practice,” wrote Sung to The Varsity on March 15. Her PI, Professor Robert Morris, offered to meet with her one-on-one to practice her talk. 

On March 17, Sung found out that her defence will take place over a video call, but the public portion of her defence has been cancelled.

Graduate students worried about research setbacks

Even though classes and meetings shifted online this week, Kyle*, a graduate student in biology, expressed guilt about their inability to complete lab work. “It’s hard to sit at home when you know you have a growing pile of work that has to be done at the lab,” Kyle wrote to The Varsity. “This will either set you behind or create more work to do.”

Similarly, Ash*, a neuroscience graduate student who works with mice, wrote that they were worried about how a lab shutdown would impact their mouse colonies and degree progress. “I have a lot of big ideas but no concrete evidence to link everything together yet,” Ash wrote. “If research is shut down, it’s not easy to get back.”

Ash said that their PI is looking into “whether the research animals have to undergo mass euthanasia.”

“It is a huge waste of research funds if it happens and we’d like to prevent it as much as possible,” Ash wrote.

Avery*, a pharmaceutical sciences graduate student shared this sentiment. “I’m definitely worried about the impact this will have on my research.”

“The guilt I feel at the possibility of missing a few weeks in [the] lab is immense. But the guilt I feel about not doing my part to stop the spread of COVID-19 is also huge.”

*Names have been changed for privacy.

The Varsity has reached out to U of T and the UHN for comment.

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