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New FAS and SEAS Policy Grants Undergraduate Students Access to On-Campus Research

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UPDATED: Feb. 2, 2021 at 1:50 p.m.

Harvard began allowing eligible undergraduates living on campus to access research labs Saturday, with plans to extend the eligibility to enrolled students living off campus as early as Feb. 15.

According to the policy crafted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the College, enrolled undergraduate students living on campus are permitted to participate in mentored lab research this semester. The new policy — which applies to all FAS divisions — marks a departure from the more stringent measures put in place last fall, when research was limited to on-campus seniors working on their theses, according to Director of Science Education Logan S. McCarty ’96.

To start the process of granting lab access this semester, faculty mentors must confirm they are willing to sponsor the student, as well as ensure their lab upholds Covid-19 safety guidelines, such as having proper social distancing measures and sufficient ventilation.

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Permission being granted is “contingent” on the student’s ability to follow the College's “community compact” — a set of social distancing and pandemic safety guidelines — and Covid-19 testing regimens; failure to comply can result in revocation of lab access, according to the policy. Access is also subject to change and dependent on the public health situation.

On-campus students must have received their third negative Covid-19 test after arrival, meaning the earliest point at which they would be able to return to the lab was Saturday.

“We felt it was really important to get undergraduate researchers back into the labs, as long as we could do it safely,” McCarty said. “We see research participation for undergraduate students as being not an optional part of education — that’s a crucial part of undergraduate education and so we wanted to find a way to help make that possible.”

In addition to on-campus students, those enrolled and living off campus in the local area will be able to access the labs on Feb. 15 at the earliest, according to the policy.

“Part of our thinking about the off-campus students was that we’ve had graduate students in our labs since the summer when we first reopened the labs, and the graduate students are living off campus,” McCarty said. “We had months of sort of success with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers working in labs, and we thought that we could safely then include in that population, on a similar basis, essentially, undergraduates who were living off campus.”

Joshua A. Ng ’23, an engineering student who is doing undergraduate research for the first time this semester, said he was excited for the opportunity and confident in the lab’s safety protocols.

“I’m excited to do in-person research because I’ll be actually doing tests in the lab, and I’ll be actually working with the materials for my research,” he said.

“I feel very confident about the Covid guidelines that they have put out — I’m going to work in the Microrobotics Lab, so I’m going to be in the new science and engineering complex in Allston, and I’ve read through the guidelines and it is very specific,” he added.

Ng said he is sympathetic to the fact that there still may be some “kinks” in the policy as the labs open up.

“This is all new, so I think I’m very understanding because this is all new water,” Ng said. “This is the first time that this type of program is being done, so they’re still working out the kinks. And we’re also in a pandemic, so I think flexibility is key during this time.”

Emma V. Stimpfl ’21, who conducted on-campus research last semester toward her thesis in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, said she was concerned that increasing the number of people authorized to access labs this semester would reduce the time undergraduates could spend in the lab during normal hours, given that lab capacity restrictions have not changed since the fall semester — resulting in more shifts on weekends, mornings, or evenings when full-time staff are not present.

“I think that’s a big problem, especially for undergrads,” Stimpfl said. “The biggest thing that we’ve been saying as students in our group chats is, 'Wait, how are we supposed to learn from people, or even just get help, especially on the weekends?'”

McCarty wrote in an email that every lab and department will have “somewhat different requirements and schedules,” making it difficult to say whether such scheduling issues would arise.

“Our policy now is to give all students the same opportunities within the constraints dictated by laboratory safety,” he wrote.

Because all instruction will be online for the semester, teaching labs will remain closed to undergraduates, according to the policy. The webpage notes, however, that “some limited on-campus instructional activities” could take place in March or April under a pilot program the FAS first announced in December.

McCarty said any in-person academic experiences would be “very limited” — such as a single week of optional on-campus instruction — and would be aimed at creating a “framework” for the FAS to safely teach classes in person in the fall.

“It would be a really small scale thing — I think they’re talking about literally a handful of courses,” he said. “And anything that’s done here would be an optional activity for students, because obviously there are students who are not living on campus or not nearby.”

CORRECTION: Feb. 2, 2021

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the research policy was crafted by the FAS Sciences Division and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In fact, the policy was crafted by the FAS and the College, and applies to students from all divisions.

—Staff writer Justin Lee can be reached at justin.lee@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Lauren L. Zhang can be reached at lauren.zhang@thecrimson.com.

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