University researchers try to make up for lost time | Wisconsin News


By KELLY MEYERHOFER, Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wisconsin (AP) – First, the 2019 flood.

And this summer, maintenance and construction issues shut down most of the chemistry building, a shutdown that lasted nearly 90 days. The two affected wings just reopened on the UW-Madison campus last week.

For professors, researchers and graduate students in the chemistry department, the past three years have not only been a frustrating inconvenience, but an experience that has put months of work ahead and delayed career paths.

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About 100 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the department signed a letter sent earlier this month to administrators asking for direct compensation for the time that was added to their degrees due to the most recent issues. The letter also calls on UW-Madison to financially support students with appointment extensions for cases where grant funding has expired but work remains, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“The level of disruption is incredible,” said sixth-year graduate student Michael Roy, who led the mailing of the letter. “We really haven’t had a normal year since 2018.”

The building’s closure alone affected the graduation times of 221 of the estimated 400 graduate students, UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said. Since the length of the doctoral program varies by student, the additional time required to complete the degree also varies.

“The university is well aware of the significant difficulties that our chemistry students, staff and faculty have experienced,” department chairman Clark Landis said in a statement. “We strive to address these impacts through a wide range of services and resources. “

UW-Madison said it would respond to many of the student inquiries requested in the letter. For example, the university provides funds for researchers to extend their appointments based on a model developed by the chemistry department and campus leaders that takes into account the number of days they lost, a McGlone said.

But should UW-Madison be forced to make up for the loss of delayed future income? The letter compares the current annual allowance of about $ 29,000 for graduate students to the average salary of $ 72,000 recent graduates reported earning in a department survey.

Asked about UW-Madison’s willingness to provide direct compensation, McGlone said the university “is evaluating options to deal with these difficulties.”

The department’s series of unfortunate events began with the grim “polar vortex”.

In early 2019, the extreme weather event plunged local temperatures to 30 degrees below zero. A rapid warming followed a few days later, which likely resulted in a rupture of the main water line of the chemical building which damaged the ground floor, basement, basement and rooms. elevators.

The flooding displaced almost everyone in the building for a few weeks. But a few research groups working in the lower levels of the building found themselves shut out of their workspace for months.

Fifth-year graduate student Paige Kinsley was one of the unlucky handful. Expensive instruments had to be replaced. Access to the lab was limited and much of their time was spent on administrative tasks, such as rebuilding the lab and ordering new equipment.

Kinsley estimates that it took about a year for the lab to regain a fully functional space for the research group. The lab was just starting to gain momentum in early 2020 when the pandemic shut it down.

“It’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” Kinsley said. “It just builds. “

COVID-19, of course, has affected research beyond the university’s chemistry department. Scientists across campus found themselves left out of their labs. Many took advantage of the spring of 2020 to write articles, submit grants or analyze data.

The university’s Graduate School has created a $ 1.2 million scholarship program providing one-semester support to doctoral students about to graduate but whose progress has been stunted by the pandemic. Officials encouraged faculty to apply for additional federal funding that would cover students caring for family members.

Nationally, a quarter of graduate students said they expected to take longer to graduate, according to a 2020 survey of 3,500 graduate students at a dozen public research universities . Most respondents estimated it would take them another six months to a year, and more women than men said they extended their deadline.

UW-Madison executives began easing research restrictions in the summer of 2020, but there were still limits on how long and how many people could be in the lab at any given time.

Roy was able to get the job done but at a slower pace. He accepted it because he knew that all researchers around the world were suddenly less productive.

“Everyone understands that this period is marked with a big asterisk,” Roy said.

Kinsley also found workarounds. Trying to find some humor in the situation, she said her research group joked about how they had endured a flood and a plague, wondering what was to come next in the 10 Bible plagues inflicted on the ‘Egypt.

What came next had no theological comparison, but the effects were damaging.

In August, during an eight-day planned HVAC shutdown, part of the ventilation system collapsed and with it most of the building’s airflow. Carrying out chemical experiments without fresh air and proper exhaust is dangerous, which is why two wings of a building dating from the 1960s were closed for almost three months, affecting around 250 researchers.

It is not known who, if any, is responsible for the failure of the infrastructure. McGlone, spokesperson for UW-Madison, said the university had no further details to share. The financial cost of the closure is being tracked, but she said an estimate was not yet available.

Roy’s research group has moved to a space one-fifth the size of their lab, and half of which is shared with another research group. He estimates he did less than half the work he would have done in his normal lab space.

Sixth-year graduate student Marie Fiori traveled to Stanford University last week to test her samples with specialized equipment, which reportedly happened regardless of the shutdown. But the building’s closure prevented her from performing preliminary tests.

“I should know pretty much everything about these samples before I fly over and I’m not quite sure I know,” she said in an interview from the airport.

Some research groups had equipment in the building that could not be moved. For these people, the search has come to a complete halt. Roy said he knew of at least one student who temporarily moved to another state to gain access to facilities at a collaborating university.

Consider the cohort that started in fall 2018, faced flooding in 2019, battled the pandemic in 2020, and faced building closure in 2021. Now in their fourth, longest year uninterrupted period of work in the laboratory is only a few months.

The graduate students thank the department for doing all they can to help. Landis, the department chair, has pledged to write a letter explaining the circumstances of the past few years, which upcoming classes can submit with job applications, Roy said. Other administrators have rescheduled student rotations, exam dates and research proposal deadlines.

Roy is still on his way to graduation this winter and has a postdoctoral position in view at another university. He estimates he produced about one less paper due to COVID-19 and another due to the building closure.

It’s hard for Kinsley to quantify his research loss.

“My internal motivation was beaten,” she said. “Any kind of momentum has been stopped many times.”

While many researchers returned to the Chemistry Building this week, Kinsley and his research group have not, at least for now. Further construction is planned in the coming months for the floors just below their laboratory, presenting another potential source of disturbance.

Given the group’s unlucky streak over the past few years, she said they decided to stay in their new home across the street.

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