Conducting the Summer Research Program During the Summer of COVID-19


Saint Mary’s campus has been quiet since the shelter-in-place order came into effect in mid-March, but with careful planning and precautions against the spread of COVID-19, Summer Research students have officially returned to work in the science labs at Brousseau Hall. This is also the first student program to return to campus. The Summer Research Program—an annual program for students in the School of Science (SOS) to work closely with faculty members on genuine research projects—has continued this year with considerable changes and new challenges to overcome as a result of COVID-19.

“We’re one of a handful of programs in the whole country that are actually running this summer. Many, many, many of them got canceled,” said Karen Ruff, 2020 Summer Research faculty coordinator. “The fact that we’re a small college actually worked in our favor because it was all our own students, all our own faculty. So if we could find a way to do it safely, we could still run it.”

Through collaboration between SOS Dean Roy Wensley, regular Summer Research Program donors, Health Services, Student Housing, College administration, and the Cabinet, a plan was created so that this incredible opportunity for students could be continued safely. Even before the program started on June 8, participants coming from outside the Bay Area were asked to either quarantine for two weeks or to quarantine for one week and then get tested for COVID-19 before arriving on campus. Students and faculty are required to wear masks at all times, and avoid coming within six feet of one another unless absolutely necessary. Labs and study rooms are reserved and scheduled so that researchers can be properly distanced; and they sanitize their hands regularly. For most of the scientists, working with something they cannot see, much like the virus, is something they do every day.

“Part of the research process is sanitizing everything as you go along anyway,” said Ruff. “A lot of our technique is to protect our science in addition to protecting us, so a lot of that carries over.”

In addition to the academic and professional advantages it provides, the Summer Research Program is also an opportunity for students to live together on campus, to mingle, and converse about the varying types of scientific research in which they are actively engaged. Unlike previous years; the barbecues, meetings, and social events are canceled or held on Zoom. Of  the 20 research students, only eight are living in single dorms; four live locally and commute to campus; and eight are working completely remotely. Because of precautions, simple activities such as sitting together for lunch are not allowed, resulting in a typically very social program being turned into an experience that can be quite isolating. In one of the program’s weekly meetings, Professor of Psychology and licensed counselor Mark Barajas spoke to the students about stress, isolation, and mental health, and the importance of keeping communication lines open about the unique challenges of these new working conditions and protocols.

Now halfway to the August 7 program end date, the research projects have been progressing nicely despite the obstacles. Meetings with scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are taking place over Zoom, microscope stations in laboratories are physically distanced, and students are mapping the effects of air quality on COVID-19 working from their homes. 

Summer research participants will display their work at the virtual lightning talks and poster session later this fall.