Mentoring Graduate Students During & Beyond COVID-19

May 6, 2020

We are seeing a disruption in scientific research as we continue to social distance and follow stay-at-home orders in many countries because of COVID-19. Research labs are considered non-essential work and have been forced to shut down. Many universities are not allowing students to be on campus. With graduate students not in the lab, many are left to figure out what to do. So how can mentors help graduate students during this time? How will the temporary pause affect graduate students in the long term? We interviewed 3 professors:

  • Dr. Victor DiRita, Professor & Chair in the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University.
  • Dr. Aleksandra Sikora, Associate Professor in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University.
  • Dr. Mike Ibba, Professor and Chair in the Department of Microbiology at Ohio State University. 

They shared insights on what challenges graduate students are facing and activities they might participate in while labs are closed. They also shared what the long-term effects on graduate education might be.

What are some of the challenges that graduate students at your university are facing during COVID-19?

DiRita: Our students are done with coursework and are primarily in the lab now, so most of them are concerned that their progress is now at a complete standstill. Those who are preparing for qualifying exams benefit from the completely dedicated time for preparation, but we have other students who are trying to finish up experiments for a paper. In one case, a student needed to collect data in April and May for a timed-pregnancy experiment that involved knockout mice, and we shut down in late March. We had to designate that work as “essential research;" otherwise this student would have lost months of effort at a time in his training when months lost means another year in graduate school to start the experiment over.

Sikora: Graduate students across all disciplines, whether in Ph.D., Pharm.D., M.D./Ph.D. or M.D. programs are profoundly affected by COVID-19. While instruction continues to varying degrees using online tools, research at the bench, preceptorship and standardized patient-care learning remain halted. Personal goals for graduate students, like starting a job or a family or buying a first home, are being put on hold as graduation is being pushed back. Another challenge that graduate students are facing is how to create a proper working space environment and manage their time when household members are working from home. Home-life and work-life are blurred. Together, this creates uncertainty, difficulty staying focused and, ultimately, stress and increased anxiety.

Ibba: In terms of classes, our challenges have mainly been in transitioning to new formats for ongoing activities while trying to maintain key parts of the learning experience. For example, students listening to a seminar on Zoom don’t lose much in terms of scientific content, but a student giving a presentation on Zoom does not learn what it’s like to look audience members in the eye. In some of the classes that have small-group work, such as our scientific writing course, the newness of the virtual breakout room is something both instructors and students are still feeling our way into. I think going forward I’ll have a much better idea of how to handle the virtual classroom for graduate education. This all happened so fast that we found ourselves having to use the same syllabus with remote-learning components quickly subbed in. That’s very different from a class designed for remote learning!

How are you providing support and staying engaged with the graduate students in your lab while they are away from the bench?

DiRita: I am maintaining my regular weekly meetings with my students during this period.  A couple of them are at a point where they can begin to write papers based on their data, and they are taking advantage of this time to hammer out drafts and share those with me to edit. One student has decided to learn a molecular simulation pipeline so he can apply such approaches to complement his wet-lab experiments that are now on hold. In addition to our regular one-on-one meetings, everyone has been meeting once a week at our regular lab meeting time for happy hour. In the happy hour, we really don’t talk too much about science, but rather discuss how we are spending our time away in other pursuits—discussing movies or shows we are watching or books we are reading. We even invited back former lab members who have moved on to other positions so we can all catch up.

Sikora: To provide support for the undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs and other members of my lab, I came up with an action plan that involves Zoom lab meetings, bioinformatic analyses and data mining, reading and writing. For the Zoom meetings, we meet 3 times a week. On Mondays and Fridays, we share updates on research progress, ask for feedback and assign tasks. On Wednesdays, we meet for a happy hour that is focused on team building and interpersonal relationships. The themes include sharing something about yourself, what the number 1 song was when you were born, 2 truths and a lie, your most admired microbiologist, the most creative Zoom background, sharing a favorite picture and your next trip. I also meet each person one-on-one to discuss a topic at the discretion of the student. As we cannot work in the lab, I have refocused some of our research efforts on using bioinformatics and in silico analyses to move our field forward. A lot of our efforts are designated for reading and writing. Writing can be a great way to engage everyone in the lab and move research forward amid a lockdown. Some of the examples in my lab include writing the following:

  • An introduction for a thesis.
  • Parts of research manuscripts, reviews and book chapters.
  • Proposals for preliminary exams and grants.
  • Animal study (IACUC) and Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications for research involving human subject protocols.
  • Standard operating procedures.

We also use Slack to facilitate the flow of information and brainstorming. In particular, one exciting discussion topic is “What will you do first when you go back to the lab?,” which involves prioritization and planning of experiments. Lastly, I treat feedback as a gift, and therefore I ask my students frequently about what works and what does not work, and implement changes accordingly.

Ibba: As soon as the stay-at-home order started, I had both one-on-one and small-group meetings to discuss plans for working from home. There is a lot of writing, bioinformatics and in-depth data analysis going on in our group right now. We are still having lab meetings and journal clubs once a week using Zoom. I also have individual weekly meetings with lab members. This works well, and there is the added benefit that we are spending more time talking things over. I’m not looking at my watch and rushing off to a meeting, and the students are not looking at their timers to see when they have to get back to the bench. We’ve also kept up with lab happy hours every couple of weeks which have been a great way to blow off steam and stay connected. The other tool that has been incredibly useful is Slack. In addition to all the practical benefits it provides, it also helps us maintain lab chatter, scientific and non-scientific, and keeps us all connected.

What are the long-term effects of COVID-19 that you foresee for graduate students’ education and how is your university planning on addressing them?

DiRita: A big question is how to phase in getting back into the labs. We are starting to look at this across campus and are setting up guidelines for who goes back where and when. My priority will be to get students back at the bench, but we need to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we do it. Another issue is time until degree conferral given the delay noted above in students’ progress. We don’t want to water down what we accept as a completed thesis, but on the other hand, we want to be sensitive about students needing to get on with the next phase of their training (and lives). Additionally, we have some students who are dependent on teaching assistantships for their stipends, and the use of teaching assistants (TAs) in our courses has changed because we are having fewer lab classes during this period. So, trainee funding is a concern. Additionally, once we are back to some sense of regular order, we need to adjust some of our practices because of budgetary concerns throughout the university. As department chair, my first priority is maintaining our staff positions so no one gets laid off. That means we need to cut our budget, and right now our external seminar speaker program is a prime target. The speaker program is a big benefit to students and postdocs, who get to meet visiting leaders in our field. Another potential target is travel support to meetings for our trainees and even some of our faculty. These are all hard decisions to make, and some of these budget constraints will certainly affect our trainees. I don’t think our university has any clear answers on these issues to date.

Sikora: I am not aware of the university’s recommendations at this point. It is fair to say that the world will change in ways that we cannot yet fully comprehend. However, considering other possible interruptions in the future like a natural disaster, efforts could be focused on these issues:

  • Understanding and addressing the impact of COVID-19 on student and faculty success by building online tools for learning, communicating, assessment and ensuring ample psychological support.
  • Learning to live with social distancing by having PPE in the lab and classes or alternating work shifts—e.g., some students work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and others on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
  • Creating a standard operating procedure (SOP) to ensure social distancing, similar to what private essential businesses have done to stay open.
  • Revising degree completion recommendations.

Ibba: Ask me again in 2 weeks! More seriously, in Ohio we are now in the position that, if the current modeling trends prove to be correct, limited lab reopening may commence after May 1. Ohio State University has set up a task force to organize a gradual and initially quite limited return to work. The team is generating safety guidelines, procedure checklists and interview questions for a return to campus when it happens. The group will provide guidance to senior leadership on key decisions related to COVID-19. In particular, they will be advising on decisions regarding the reestablishment of access to campus buildings, offices, studios and research facilities. We will find out what this all means for our graduate students over the next week or so.

For more tips on how to mentor students during COVID-19, please read ASM’s mBio editorial “Coping with COVID: How a Research Team Learned To Stay Engaged in This Time of Physical Distancing.”

Author: Aleksandra Sikora, Ph.D.

Aleksandra Sikora, Ph.D.
Aleksandra Sikora is an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University.

Author: Michael Ibba, Ph.D.

Michael Ibba, Ph.D.
Michael Ibba, Ph.D., is the Dean of Science and Technology at Chapman University, and former Chair and University Distinguished Scholar of the Department of Microbiology at The Ohio State University.

Author: Victor DiRita, Ph.D.

Victor DiRita, Ph.D.
Victor DiRita, Ph.D., is the Rudolph Hugh Endowed Chair in Microbial Pathogenesis and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University.