Undergraduate Research Mostly Remote this Fall

County health department directives prohibit most in-person activity

By Alex Hong | Published 10/27/2020
Undergraduate Research Mostly Remote this Fall
A presenter at a prior SURF seminar day | Credit: Caltech Student-Faculty Programs

As coronavirus case numbers continue to tick upwards, universities around the country have struggled to balance the safety of their employees and students with the need to continue pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Caltech, whose core identity is deeply rooted in research, has been no exception.

Research ground to a halt in March as undergraduate students were instructed to leave campus and labs were closed down. In May and June, various departments began to slowly open research back up again, with the requirement that they submit detailed lab plans (including rotation schedules to allow for social distancing). Undergraduates were still prohibited from entering labs throughout the summer.

As the fall term has arrived, some departments have also released policies regarding undergraduate research. In the chemistry department, undergraduates may participate in research as long as they take research for at least 9 units of credit, participate in some coronavirus educational training as well as standard lab safety training, are added to the rotation schedule, and have a backup plan in case undergraduate research must move to remote.

Other departments appear to have been less stringent on undergraduate participation. According to Nam Ung, the Director of Student Programs in PMA, “Research in PMA is limited to only those who are a part of approved lab plans”. This is presumably a requirement in all other departments as well. It also appears that only in chemistry and materials science are students required to take research for credit. BBE, GPS, and PMA did not respond to requests to officially comment on their current policies.

According to Guruswami Ravichandran, the EAS department chair, “At this point most lab-based research is back to normal or near-normal. Theory and computational groups have continued to work remotely. While this is not ideal, since in-person collaboration is important, these groups have continued to work throughout the pandemic. Recently, small, outdoor in person collaboration meetings of four people or less have been approved to be held.”

When asked about predictions for winter, spring, and even fall 2021, Ravichandran commented, “The Institute will be studying the safety of any further reopening plans, working with local and state government, and guiding us forward.”

Since September 14th, Los Angeles County Public Health “Protocols for Institutes of Higher Education'' have prohibited colleges and universities from conducting most in-person activities. The protocols currently permit faculty and staff to “carry out essential research projects.”

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