Graduate students express frustration, confusion at U of T’s advisories on lab work amid COVID-19

“Non-essential” lab research to be suspended as of March 20 due to pandemic

Graduate students express frustration, confusion at U of T’s advisories on lab work amid COVID-19

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.

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

Recent Master's graduate discusses representations in media and challenges of academia

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

This year, Mehnaz Ahmed completed her Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. In addition to conducting scientific research, Ahmed has participated in Dove’s Project #ShowUs, an advocacy project that aims to better represent women and non-binary individuals by creating a library of stock photography for use in advertising and media, and was a mentor to undergraduate students like me. 

The hidden challenges of academia

As a graduate student, Ahmed investigated the relationship between the activity of an enzyme — named peripheral glutathione peroxidase — and the cognitive performance of individuals at an early stage of vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is a neurological disorder caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

She described the challenges she faced as internal ones. “In essence doubting myself and wondering if I would ever be successful in research or in science overall,” she wrote in an email to me.

What helped her overcome these obstacles, she wrote, was changing her perspective: “redefining what success [means] to [her] in terms of establishing a certain work-life balance.”

But striking a work-life balance is a challenge on its own.

To reach this balance, she planned for “things to look forward to after a long period of working,” which helped prevent feelings of burnout or demotivation, which can stem from long-term work.

Having completed her Master’s degree, Ahmed is in the process of choosing a path that will enable her to pursue a fulfilling career.

She is motivated “to build a life that is worth living according to [her].” Ahmed also believes that “material items will [neither] make [her] happy at the end of the day,” nor contribute to her efforts to make positive change in the world.

Mentorship as a tool for growth

Ahmed was my Senior Peer Mentor in U of T’s “First in the Family” program, which connects first-generation university students to mentors, with the aim of easing the new students into university life. We eventually fostered a close friendship.

“[Being a mentor] gave me the validation that I had important knowledge to share and reminded me that I had overcome the same difficulties my mentees had and I was able to hopefully serve as a source of support,” wrote Ahmed.

Ahmed’s own mentor, Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a Senior Scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, played an important role in her development.

Ahmed noted that having a female supervisor and mentor is crucial as she “was able to see that conducting productive research was possible while still living a fulfilling life outside of the lab and juggling a family as well.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing a lot better than you think.”

Dove created the Project #ShowUs initiative alongside Getty Images and Girlgaze to create a stock photo library of women and non-binary individuals.

Ahmed was photographed for the project by Alia Youssef, who had previously captured Ahmed’s image for Youssef’s “The Sisters Project,” which strives to dismantle discriminatory beliefs against Muslim women.

Participating in Project #ShowUs was important, wrote Ahmed, as it reinforces “the notion that these images of beauty in all forms must first start with appreciating the perspectives of women.”

The importance of a diverse representation of people in the media was noted by Ahmed, who added that “not all women and Muslim women are similar and they can often be painted with the same monolithic brush. The more representation there is, the more people will be comfortable being themselves.”

Ahmed added that the particular stereotype of Muslim women being reserved has sometimes been a challenge for her.

“There have been instances when I describe potential career trajectories [to others] where I can’t help but feel a tiny instance of being judged, in terms of not conforming to what others may perceive me as,” she wrote. This has sometimes created a pressure for her to perform to a certain standard, to challenge these expectations.

Ahmed’s advice for women pursuing STEM is to believe in yourself, be curious, and be resilient.

“Whatever is meant for you will not pass you.”

Tooth decay may result from immune response, not just bacterial plaque

U of T researchers find evidence for maverick theory first published in 1970

Tooth decay may result from immune response, not just bacterial plaque

Cavities in teeth may result from an immune system response, not just bacteria, according to a recent U of T study. This counters decades of established thinking in dental research.

In 1970, Dr. John Gabrovsek of the Cleveland Clinic published research in the Journal of Dental Research that found that our immune system may contribute to dental cavities. But during the almost 50 years since it was published, most dental researchers have not taken Gabrovsek’s theory seriously — until U of T’s findings were published in April.

The research was spearheaded by Dr. Yoav Finer and Dr. Michael Glogauer, both professors at the U of T Faculty of Dentistry.

“Glogauer approached me a few years ago, [and] told me that these immune system cells have the same enzymes and more enzymes than bacteria have, so why not check them?” Finer explained to The Varsity.

The research team began by examining immune cells called neutrophils. Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell routinely found in the mouth, and they act as the first line of defense against harmful bacteria.

However, as these immune cells fight against harmful pathogens that can damage teeth, they can also cause collateral damage to what they are originally trying to protect — our teeth.

While bacteria still cause most of the damage that results in tooth decay, Finer explained that the research team has found evidence that these immune cells also contribute to cavity formation.

How the research team arrived at the discovery

Through years of study, the team created samples from extracted teeth and then used acid to remove minerals from them.

The application of acid mimicked the effect that harmful bacteria have on teeth, as the acid they release causes tooth decay.

The researchers then isolated neutrophils from human volunteers and kept them at a warm temperature with the extracted teeth.

“That was a daily procedure because you can’t culture these cells — neutrophils — unlike bacteria,” said Finer. “You need to get these cells isolated from the blood donors on a daily basis or every other day.”

The team found that while these immune cells help protect teeth from damage caused by bacteria, they can also remove minerals from tooth dentin, as well as break down white-coloured tooth fillings.

A possible explanation for why neutrophils can degrade teeth, according to Finer, is their enzymes — biological molecules that speed up chemical reactions. However, it remains unclear which type of enzyme could be responsible for contributing to dental decay.

Applications of the research findings

Protecting our teeth is important, as dental diseases can affect not just our mouths, but our overall health. For example, bacteria that cause gum disease can lead to infections of our lungs and increased risk of blockage in arteries that can damage our hearts.

Glogauer’s research team has been developing a mouth rinse that could prevent some of the degradation caused by these immune cells to apply the findings to clinical dentistry.

Finer’s research team has also been developing a dental varnish that contains anti-degradative factors to help counteract the effect of both bacteria and neutrophils on teeth.

However, preventing tooth decay ultimately comes down to maintaining good oral hygiene.

“With a recommended toothpaste and toothbrush, keeping good oral hygiene is the key,” explained Finer. “It’s our first line of defense and can eliminate a lot of problems… the immediate thing is making sure you keep your sugar consumption under control.”

Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

The baseless fear of false accusations and avoidance of women in academia helps no one and hurts everyone

Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

Content warning: references to sexual violence.

A few weeks ago, the swearing-in of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice not only filled the court’s ninth seat, but introduced a worrisome shift in American culture: a legitimization of the fear of false sexual allegations.

The #ProtectOurBoys movement is a testament to this troubling phenomenon: mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, and friends alike are banding together to resist, in their perception, the threat of false accusers waiting to attack their male family members or friends. Even the President of the United States attests that “it’s a very scary time for young men.”

This is a dangerous ideology, as it portrays survivors in a warped light — that the ones who experience and come forward about sexual violence despite their own fears are the real threats. Unfortunately, this perverse phenomenon is spreading into academia.

In a recent piece for The New England Journal of Medicine, U of T-affiliated researchers, including Deborah Gillis, Sophie Soklaridis, and Catherine Zahn, wrote that men in academic medicine are shying away from mentoring women for fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement is sadly being used to justify the unjustified fear of lying women.

Indeed, these fears are completely baseless because false accusations are statistically rare. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that false accusations account for between two and ten percent of reports. Moreover, the reports themselves are labelled as “inconsistent definitions and protocols” by the Center.

In Pacific Standard, Emily Moon wrote that “researchers relying on federal data often conflate ‘unfounded’ reports — when law enforcement labels an accusation false or ‘baseless’ — with entirely false ones.” This means that there are ‘false allegations’ that aren’t really false at all, but instead just don’t meet legal criteria.

It can be concluded from this, then, that the wide statistical range of two to 10 per cent leans, in fact, toward the lower end. The point is that survivors who come forward are almost certainly telling the truth about their assailant. A man who has behaved professionally his entire life has nothing to worry about. Therefore, men who are fearful feel this way because of a culture and system that supports their victim status — not because there is any empirical backing or rationale behind their fear.

One possibility is that men who refuse to mentor women are not scared of the prospect of false accusers, but rather because their own behaviour is no longer acceptable. As psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon wrote in Forbes, “The essence of maturity is to be able to control and moderate sexual and power-related impulses in a context where they are not warranted. Like at work.” She explained how most men do not have to actively think about this control, because it’s subconscious. By default, they view the people they work with as respected co-workers or friends.

However, some men do worry — implying that they have heretofore viewed their female colleagues in a non-professional, non-friendly way, and that this outlook might now have consequences. Rather than professionally adjust their interactions and behaviours with women in an era where women are more likely to come forward, they choose to avoid them.

This response is detrimental to women. Currently, men dominate leadership roles in academia. According to University Affairs, in Canada, only 36 per cent of associate professors and around 22 per cent of full professors are women. For many women hoping to advance and develop within their academic fields, mentorship is a crucial asset.

The refusal of mentorship based on unfounded fears, then, hinders women’s chances in career advancement. Furthermore, they cannot close the disproportionate gender gap in leadership positions if they aren’t given the tools and assistance to do so.

Evading women in academia is also the least constructive solution for men who fear false allegations. It judges and reacts to the #MeToo movement by its false cover: a supposed male witch hunt. These men will never learn the important lessons that the movement is trying to teach — namely, how to treat women properly, especially in professional contexts.

Listening to, instead of avoiding, the movement would also make it clear that women are not the only people who are sexually assaulted. Men, too, can be victims of sexual violence. Consider the fact that, according to the Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area, one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Secluding yourself to only interacting with men is not protecting yourself — it is making a deluded assumption about how sexual assault works.

Fear and avoidance are also problematic because they put the onus of sexual assault on women in academia to not accuse others of sexual assault — instead of on the assailant to not assault women in the first place. It is not the woman’s fault if she is assaulted, and bringing her story forward is not an attack on the assailant but a call for justice and a change in culture.

Avoiding women also makes it difficult for women who have been assaulted within academic contexts to come forward, when the consequences for their fellow female academics is not only a more tense environment, but also fewer career opportunities. The act presents itself as a punishment for being a woman within the workplace and for being a woman who is assaulted within the workplace.

The final truth is that false accusations are rare, precisely because they rarely benefit the accuser in any way. Telling the world that you were assaulted isn’t a trophy to put on the shelf. For Christine Blasey Ford, her alleged assailant is a Supreme Court justice. She has had to deal with death threats, insults, and a life that has been uprooted with no result.

Men must learn that the #MeToo movement is not about living in fear; it is about changing the way that people are treated, and about making every environment safe for everyone. It is ultimately asking that they see everybody, especially women, as human beings — not as sexual objects, and certainly not as monsters lurking around the corner, waiting to attack you.

Nadine Waiganjo is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.