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Global Ambassador Stories

March 04, 2021

Research Amid a Global Pandemic

Story by Isaiah Mensah

As Purdue Boilermakers, we tackle challenges with strength, perseverance, and brute force. It is with this spirit that we have been able to successfully navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some graduate students can conduct research remotely, others like myself need to be physically present in the lab to carry out experiments. My research involves using mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs) as a model system to study biochemical processes that impact embryonic development and health. These cells, like newborn babies, require timely nutrient replenishment and care. The growth of ESCs coupled with biochemical techniques makes it virtually impossible to work remotely.

Below are some challenges I encountered and my adaptations to ensure that my research can still progress.

First, rotational shift work with lab personnel made it hard to have a sense of community. One of the factors that influenced my choice of the research group was the friendly work atmosphere and culture, which I believe was conducive for research. Social distancing has reduced our ability to mingle and learn from each other as a team in the lab. It was a challenge, but we found a solution by consistently organizing virtual meetings to discuss our research progress, troubleshoot experiments, and share ideas to ensure that every member was on track.

Although the mentoring relationship between my research supervisor and me is no longer like the pre-COVID-19 times when I had direct contact with her and acquired new skills, we have improvised. We hold group meetings virtually to address technical and conceptual issues that may arise while performing my experiments. Occasionally, she visits to ensure research is going smoothly while following the COVID-19 safety protocols. Sometimes, we communicate via text messaging or talk in-person while wearing masks and keeping a safe distance. These kinds of efforts, as small as they may seem, are motivating.

Virtual group meeting with lab members.

Virtual group meeting with lab members.

I enjoy mentoring undergraduate students who join our lab to gain essential laboratory experience and boost their research interests. However, since the ‘new normal’ requires us to work with masks and social distancing, I was finding that this usually exhilarating mentorship experience was becoming a monotonous one. To deal with the situation, I placed my undergraduate students on rotational shifts to train one student at a time. I am also fortunate to have an additional workstation where my undergraduate students run experiments under my supervision without breaching social distancing guidelines.

Like many graduate students worldwide, the pandemic has threatened the progress of my research in diverse ways. In-person scientific conferences, symposiums, and seminars where researchers meet to promote science are also struggling. Nonetheless, this is a great time to be at Purdue University. We support each other as proud Boilermakers to thrive during challenges and take giant leaps to triumph. BOILER UP!

The views of the author are not necessarily those of the Grad School or Purdue University.