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GSBS Class of 2021 weather COVID pandemic, graduate with ‘life lessons’

By Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

junio 04, 2021

When SARS-CoV-2 required lab activity at UMass Medical School to ramp down and initially send all but essential staff home on March 13, 2020, the experiments Heather Loring, a PhD candidate in the GSBS Class of 2021, had been doing toward her dissertation were put on hold. And she had no idea when she’d be allowed to return to campus to start back up again.

Over the next three months the labs remained closed and Loring spent her time analyzing data, planning, writing or working on grants.

Heather Loring

“There was some anxiety those first several weeks—not being able to do any bench science, not knowing when we’d be able to get back to campus or how it might affect our plans,” Loring said. “Normally, you would like to have all your experiments completed so you can spend the last few months of your PhD just writing the dissertation. This year’s class didn’t have that luxury.”

For the members of the GSBS Class of 2021 who will accept their degrees Sunday at UMass Medical School’s 48th Commencement, COVID shut down their labs and experiments just as they were entering the final stages of their training.

MD/PhD candidate James L. Shen was scheduled to finish his dissertation in 2021, so he could begin his third year of medical school. The pandemic shut down the lab of his mentor, Eric Baehrecke, PhD, professor of molecular, cell & cancer biology, to all but essential support activities.

James Shen

Like Loring, the time away from the lab put added pressure on Shen to finish his dissertation as planned. “It was like a race against the clock,” said Shen. “As an MD/PhD, we are already on a tight schedule. As much as I love research, there are still those last two clinical years that have to be completed and we’re on a schedule for that.”

“It was a challenge for the graduate students, without a doubt,” said Loring’s mentor, Paul R. Thompson, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology. “A couple of months is a lot of lost time. That is the thing about science. If it takes a cell 24 or 48 hours to recuperate before an experiment can be run; there is nothing you can do to speed that process along. At the end of the day, you are limited by the fact that you have to wait.”

When Loring returned to campus in June, she had to rearrange her schedule to fit her experiments into her remaining time in the lab before the end of the year. That meant putting in extra hours at the lab on evenings and weekends.

“It wasn’t ideal. I had to write the dissertation out of order because I needed access to a certain equipment or had to do certain experiments and I had to be efficient in how I used my time,” said Loring. “This meant I had to write one version of the work as a dissertation and another as a paper for publication and had to update them in parallel.”

One of the ways that Loring found to be more efficient in her work was to make sure she had a solid plan and strategy for how she would be using her time in the lab in advance. “I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to plan their week in advance, but when we were out of the lab between March and June, I really outlined the final experiments I knew I had to do and used that time to plan and map out a strategy to implement once we got back.”

Likewise, Shen had to find a way to be efficient in the lab. “It really made me realize how important it was to make that time in the lab productive time,” said Shen. “If there was an experiment that I knew might take five days to run I’d make sure to start it on a Wednesday instead of a Monday so it could run over the weekend.”

As she was finishing up her PhD work, Loring was also busy interviewing for jobs and planning for her career after graduation. “There was a lot of uncertainty because I wasn’t sure about where I was going to go or what exactly I was going to do after graduation because of the pandemic. At the same time, there were these important experiments that needed to be done. There wasn’t a lot of down time.”

Ultimately, Loring landed at Health Advances as a strategic consultant for the health care industry. She started at Health Advances in January. Meanwhile, work she did for her dissertation is being reviewed for publication and the work she started in the lab is being continued by another GSBS student.

An unforeseen hurdle for Shen was the process of submitting his work for publication. As the lockdown continued, many scientists spent time away from the lab analyzing old data and writing. Suddenly, scientific journals were being inundated with articles for publication. At the same time, research on the SARS-CoV-2 virus was ramping up and scientists were eager to get out their findings, hoping that what they’d learned could be used to ease the pandemic. According to Shen and Dr. Baehrecke, the process of getting their article reviewed was a struggle.

“It makes it hard on the students,” said Baehrecke. “We were submitting articles to multiple journals that weren’t even getting reviewed.

“I think there is a silver lining for this year’s class,” said Baehrecke. “This cohort of students has learned to be much more efficient writers. I think they’ve also had to be more independent in their thinking. They have learned at a very early stage how to be autonomous and strategic with their science. The plans and datasets they’re coming to me with are more developed and much further along than they might have been previously. In the long run, I think these students are better prepared for careers in science having gone through this experience.”

Shen added, “It was tough. It was stressful. But in the end, it got done. I think, more important than the science, was the life lessons we learned from having gone through this journey.”