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How UBC Chemistry is Adjusting to Remote Work under COVID-19

“I’m definitely itching to get back to the lab,” says Don Mayder (PhD candidate). Like other departments on campus, the physical spaces in the chemistry department are now closed. Classes moved online Friday, March 13th, and staff were asked to work from home on Tuesday, March 16th until further notice. Labs were asked to end experiments and close by the end of that same week. 

As students, faculty, and staff have since transitioned to working from home, they have had to make adjustments in how they proceed with their work. 

Undergraduate students

Moving classes online on very short notice was a major adjustment. Greg Dake (associate professor), who oversees undergraduate teaching credits the adaptability of students and faculty during this time. “There were a lot of people simultaneously learning how to use different [teaching] tools at the same time,” says Dake. “It was really different, but there was a comradery of spirit that everyone was in it together. Everyone pitched in and did a good job.” 

For Amanda, a fourth year undergraduate in the Schafer group, working from home also means preparing her undergraduate thesis from home. Initially, she felt good working from home since she had time to focus on her thesis, but over time she realized that there would be missing data in her research, so her thesis is more theory-based than she would have liked. However, she says “everyone has been more understanding which has been nice.”  

Graduate students

PhD candidates, Don Mayder (Hudson Group) and Lily Southcott (Orvig Group), have been finding other relevant research tasks to work on in their time. Both have been doing more planning for papers and projects that they intend to work on when they return to their labs. This means more literature reviews and data analysis. 

Though the progress is slower, “[we] have a bit of time to focus on planning, whereas in the lab you might push through what you’re doing rather than taking a step back and actually looking through the literature” says Southcott. 

The Hudson Group that Mayder is a part of has been doing literature reviews weekly online. “We’ve changed the formatting a bit. It seems to work really well. It is a personal success in the group that we’ve achieved,” says Mayder. 

As more students work from home on their research manuscripts, Laurel Schafer (professor), has found herself just as busy outside the lab as she is in the lab as she reviews student manuscripts. “I recognize that everyone is working on the same deliverable right now, whereas before that would have been staggered,” she says. 

Lab operations

Despite the halt of research activities, staff lab technicians are still able to go into their research facilities to ensure that equipment is running smoothly and safely. “We have a check-in and check-out procedure, because there are issues with working alone, and we have to make sure that we have a plan in place to ensure that people in the labs don’t get hurt,” says Ken MacFarlane (director of finance and operations). 

Work is also being done behind the scenes in preparation for a possible return to labs. Karen Button (store manager) has been recruited to assist with UBC’s Emergency Response Team’s PPE assessment. Safer equipment has been able to go home with other facilities staff to work on in the meantime, from making molds on a 3D printer, to writing programs for a HAAS simulator box.  

Despite an uncertain timeline, faculty and staff are working hard to prepare a plan to return to the labs. “One of the things that I think is really exciting is that as researchers, we are excellent problem solvers. Isn’t this a problem to solve? This problem is ‘How do we support our research community in getting back to research in a safe way?’” says Schafer. “We are exceptionally well-equipped to work within whatever guidelines that the health officer provides us and figuring out how to make the most of that opportunity.”