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Undergraduate laboratory research has been urged to pause following a warning sent on Feb. 5 of "worrisome trends" in COVID-19 positivity rates among Penn's undergraduate student population. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

The Perelman School of Medicine's Office of the Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer advised faculty to pause undergraduate laboratory research following a warning sent on Feb. 5 by top University administrators about "worrisome trends" in COVID-19 positivity rates among Penn's undergraduate student population. 

In an email to faculty members sent Feb. 7, Jon Epstein, executive vice dean and chief scientific officer of the Medical School, recommended the school to halt undergraduate laboratory research until trends reverse. Epstein did not respond to a request to comment on the decision. 

This abrupt change comes after Penn’s undergraduate COVID-19 cases doubled in the last week of January from the week prior — increasing from 55 to 111 positive tests. The positivity rate for undergraduate students rose from 1.05% on Jan. 24 to 1.91% on Jan. 30, and the overall positivity rate rose from 0.87% to 1.09% during the same week.

In the email, Epstein wrote that exceptions may be made “in rare cases" with approval from the Office of the Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer and the department chair, and should be requested with "full justification" and a revised plan describing how such activities could be conducted safely. He also advised faculty members who are currently advising undergraduates doing on-campus research to instead engage with their students through remote research activities.

The decision has left students who were waiting to start or resume research projects frustrated, as many had spent months preparing to enter the lab. 

College sophomore Lilianne Sutton said that she would have started coming into the Mourkioti Lab the week of Feb. 8, but began anticipating the possibility of delaying her research after receiving the University's warning about COVID-19 rates. 

As a Vagelos Scholar, Sutton had been planning an experiment that would study muscle stem cell activity in mice. After the activity was put on hold in March 2020 due to the pandemic, she said she was finally prepared to begin the project this semester. 

“Sometimes if you're interested in research, it's very disappointing when you're not able to go into the lab, because it's just a very exciting and motivating thing to be able to do, like, ‘I gotta make sure I get this project done because I want to go in the lab later,” Sutton said. 

College first year Jasleen Gill, who is also a Vagelos Scholar, had been preparing to get into the Thaiss Lab to assist with a microbiome project since late November 2020. She said that her first day in the lab this semester on Feb. 3 was exciting — especially since she had been reading about experiments, meeting with researchers, and going over protocols for almost three months.

She added that she was "amazed" on her first day by the independence her mentor gave her, noting that he allowed her to do parts of the analysis protocol by herself. Gill got nervous, however, when she read the administration's warning email.

"To be an undergrad and to do research right now and to have that sense of independence — I was very excited. It was very liberating," Gill said. "And then it got scrapped."

Both Sutton and College first year Hayden Siesel expressed frustration that the restriction on undergraduate research was a blanket statement with only rare exceptions, rather than a case-by-case basis. 

“I understand the positivity rate is really high right now, but personally, as a pre-health student, I put a lot of effort into making sure that I am on top of being COVID-19 safe,” Siesel said. 

Gill, on the other hand, said that she thought pausing research for everyone was the right thing to do, at least in regard to first years and sophomores who are not yet carrying out their own experiments. She added that while she would much rather be working on wet lab research — where researchers experiment on chemicals and biological matter — she is grateful for the opportunity to work on a dry lab component virtually, although she acknowledged that the experience will not be the same.  

Siesel would have begun working in a melanoma lab, studying why cancers such as melanoma are worse in men than women, and he said that the majority of his work is biological wet-lab research that can’t be done remotely. 

“I've waited so long to get the vaccine and maintain some sense of normalcy with a social life in a safe way,” Siesel said. “And so it would be sad if I wasn't able to go into the lab when I've been super safe, and [because of] some actions of others, I'm not able to pursue research, which is one of the main reasons I came to Penn.”

Sutton similarly said she has been careful throughout the fall and spring semesters to limit her socialization to roommates in her off-campus housing on 42nd and Chestnut streets. Though she understands the new restrictions on undergraduate on-campus research, she said they’re still “extremely detrimental” for responsible students. 

“I would just like students who are being irresponsible to consider the fact that regardless of whether or not COVID-19 has a serious impact on them or their own health, that it has a serious impact on West Philadelphia, on healthcare resources, and on other students who are being responsible and who are having opportunities taken away from them,” Sutton said. 

Gill echoed these sentiments, saying that the spike in cases was caused by reckless behavior, and "shouldn't have happened."

According to Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tamara Greenfield King, a "completely disproportionate" amount of COVID-19 cases has been linked to Greek life organizations at Penn that have held maskless, indoor parties and events in downtown Philadelphia venues. 

"To the subset of people at Penn who came to Penn because of the state-of-the-art research, this is really destroying them," Gill said. "These restrictions, they could have been prevented." 

Siesel said that he believes a stricter two-week quarantine for all undergraduate students, instead of the Quiet Period from Jan. 6 to Feb. 1, would have allowed the University to start off the semester in “a better place.” However, he expressed hope that Penn can get its COVID-19 numbers under control and devise a safe way to conduct research with undergraduates.

Penn is currently operating at Campus Alert Level 2: Heightened Awareness, but the Feb. 5 email by University administration cautioned that additional restrictions could be put in place as soon as the week of Feb. 8, which could entail changing the alert level to three, and a campus-wide Safer at Home order. 

Epstein added in his email that because of the average positivity rate in the School of Medicine — 0.10% during the week of Feb. 1 — COVID-19 testing efforts, and safety practices, he is confident in the school’s ability to operate safely, but will continue to adjust protocols as necessary. He wrote that the school will closely monitor the situation in partnership with University colleagues

“Recognizing that on-site research is an important part of the educational experience for many undergraduates, we will work to facilitate their in-person opportunities as soon as possible,” Epstein wrote in the email.