Campus News Science & Technology

Graduate students adapt to new lab protocols

Veterinary student Hannah Kemelmakher works under a hood in a vet hospital lab. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

With new protocols in place to safeguard against COVID-19, most University of Georgia graduate students have safely returned to their work in labs and field settings. Continuing their important research has been a positive development, but the changes have required adjustments. Those adaptations have varied immensely, depending on the students’ areas of study.

Hannah Kemelmakher studies regenerative medicine and immunology in horses and other large animals at UGA. The pandemic has made her lab work challenging, but there has been a silver lining: “My downtime at home has allowed me to rewrite, organize and consolidate my project in a way that has made me more efficient,” she said.

In addition to mask wearing and social distancing, Kemelmakher, who is a second-year dual D.V.M./Ph.D. candidate in John Peroni’s lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine, described the additional precautions her lab is taking.

Limiting personal contact

“We conduct lab meetings predominantly over Zoom,” she said. “We sign up to use specific equipment one person at a time, and we have reorganized the lab space to redistribute materials and avoid concentrating them in one area.”

Matt Seivert, a member of Tina Salguero’s lab in the chemistry department in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, also felt pandemic pangs as he returned to his research.

“The time I lost earlier this year was one of the biggest impacts,” said Seivert, a Ph.D. candidate in inorganic/materials chemistry who, like many others, was forced to suspend lab work in March when the campus reduced operations to essential research only. “When I resumed my research in June, I found myself having difficulty remembering simple tasks that I had once mastered.”

Although a new routine had its challenges, Seivert and his lab colleagues were able to implement precautionary measures to keep themselves safe in the lab, including working staggered shifts, offering individual storage units for personal items and disinfecting common areas after use. They also established a new lab routine that works for their area of study. However, some challenges have been tougher to overcome than others.

The lab lockdown over the final part of the spring and during the summer was actually beneficial for me.” — Krishna Latha

“I don’t get to see my friends and colleagues as often as I used to, and that in itself has been fairly isolating when working around the lab,” he said. “On top of everything, my mental health has also been impacted, which has translated into my lab work. I often remind myself that it is OK to have these feelings.”

Although the pandemic has taken its toll, some students have been fortunate to continue their lab work without setbacks.

“The lab lockdown over the final part of the spring and during the summer was actually beneficial for me,” said Krishna Latha, a Ph.D. candidate in CVM’s Department of Infectious Diseases. “Thankfully, I had data already from previous experiments and no distractions, so I was able to start writing about my project, which is one of the ultimate outputs people look for.”

Working in Wendy Watford’s immunology lab, Latha is grateful for the opportunity to be productive, even finding time to advance her area of study.

“Part of the advantages of the online world booming right now is that I have been able to attend a Preprint Journal Club virtual conference, better organize my project plan and attend a three-day computation workshop,” said Latha. “I’m hoping that with my understanding of immunology in my current project, combined with this additional virtual interaction, I can think of ways to expand and apply this knowledge to COVID and other viral infections.”

Unhindered research

Morgan Barney is another of the lucky ones who was able to continue research almost completely unhindered. Barney is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public and International Affairs working alongside Chad Clay in the Human Rights Measurement Initiative Lab.

“So far, my lab work has been going smoothly. The HRMI lab meets completely on Zoom in order to achieve the fullest pandemic precautions afforded to us in the current environment,” said Barney, whose research focuses on human rights, international nongovernmental organizations and human trafficking. “But this has not affected my participation or work with HRMI. I am able to participate fully online.”

As the pandemic continues to affect research procedures and daily life on campus, graduate students can expect current instruction and lab protocols to remain the new normal for now. Students struggling to adjust to this new routine and needing support should visit the University Health Center site, where they can find several services including virtual counseling.