Social distancing in research labs, an undergraduate’s perspective

Published: 22 Dec 2020

Ellie Hyde, undergraduate Pharmacology and Drug Discovery student, recounts her experience of social distancing in a research environment.


I am a final year undergraduate studying BSc Pharmacology and Drug Discovery at the University of East Anglia (UEA). I was fortunate this year to have won funding for a summer research project in UEA’s Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacology Lab’s in the School of Pharmacy. UEA began to reopen their research labs in June with minimal lab capacity. By August, the labs were beginning to increase their maximum occupancy which meant I was then able to go in to start my project.

As an undergraduate, I was initially worried that I might not feel welcomed by the postgraduate researchers who were trying to catch up with the last 3 months they had lost working in the lab. However, I was relieved to find they were still just as happy to help me with my project work and I felt like I was a part of their team.

The warm weather allowed us as a research group to still go out and socialise, we would regularly sit out on the grass by the UEA Lake for lunch so we could still keep our distance. It would almost feel normal and we could forget for a minute that we would need to put on masks before returning to our lab space via a specific one-way system.

One of the first concepts UEA implemented to help create social distancing was a one-way system around campus both outside and inside the buildings. To begin with, I regularly found myself getting lost and I would have to climb up and down many more sets of stairs than I was used in order to get from one lab to another. I had also made it a personal mission to work out what the shortest route from the lab to the coffee shop was. It felt strange walking around the building where the research labs were. Usually, the building would be bustling with life and corridor conversations, but the space was empty and strangely quiet. I remember talking about this with the research group I was a part of, it was pointed out that the building was actually full of people using the labs, we just wouldn’t cross paths with any of them in the corridors and social spaces like we could have previously.

One of the challenges we faced as a research group, was navigating in-person lab training from a social distance. I was considered a guinea pig of sorts, for working out how to teach undergraduates when term started again. We employed a variety of techniques to try and work around the two-metre rules. Sometimes I would be able to watch a demonstration, in other instances, I would carry out a task myself whilst my supervisor attempted to describe what I should be seeing from a distance. We even tried being instructed remotely by video call which worked surprisingly well.

However, there were times where I would have to rely on others to perform tasks for me, as some of the equipment I required was kept in lab spaces that only permitted 1 person at a time. This made it difficult as an under
graduate to feel fully immersed in the independent research experience.
Now that term has started, more guidelines have been put in place. Armed with a UEA-branded face mask and a face shield created by the department’s 3D printers, I felt well provisioned by the university.

Yet even with all these precautions, as final year project students descended upon the research labs, project supervisors faced the pressure of managing the number of people using their lab spaces. The result so far has been varied, with some students going in daily to carry out experiments whilst others have been interrupted almost weekly with periods of self-isolation as cases of COVID-19 increased in Norwich.

We are now beginning the second national lockdown, juxtaposed with the fact that universities will remain open. It will be interesting to see how this affects undergraduates’ experiences within research labs and the dynamics between student and staff attempting to use these shared spaces.

From what I have seen, social distancing in a lab is possible but requires everyone to stay conscious of their surroundings at all times, which can be mentally very draining. Overall, I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to gain so much experience during these strange and unusual times and hope that despite the pandemic, opportunities remain available to allow students to gain hands-on experience in scientific research environments.


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