Co-op During COVID-19: An Undergrad’s Experience

Co-op During COVID-19: An Undergrad’s Experience
Posted in: Guest Posts
3 years ago

Co-op During COVID-19: An Undergrad’s Experience

In the Spring 2020 semester, I was involved in Northeastern University’s co-op program, where students pause the usual course schedule to work full-time for six months in a position related to their degree. During this time, I was working at a Boston Children’s Hospital neuroimaging laboratory analyzing diffusion tensor imaging scans with tractography software, my first real scientific experience outside of Northeastern and a great fit for me as an aspiring neuroscientist.

Then came the dreaded email—my position would be remote for the last three months of my co-op due to COVID-19.

While I was grateful that I could continue my work from home as much as possible, I knew that I was losing experiences and connections that would have been invaluable to my future career. Coupled with the lack of motivation that I experienced working from home, I knew that remote working was not for me.

During the Fall 2020 semester, I began the application process for my second co-op taking place in Spring 2021. I ran into several roadblocks, including significantly less neuro-specific postings and enforced restrictions on in-person work amongst labs throughout Boston. I thought to myself, who would want to hire an in-person undergraduate student with little neuroscience experience when they barely have the capability to send their current employees into the lab as it is? Even better, more students were applying for spring co-ops than usual, as many had foregone their typical fall co-ops in hopes of avoiding the inevitable virtual position.

Despite all this, I miraculously secured a position at my top choice, the Alzheimer’s Clinical and Translational Research Unit (ACTRU) at Massachusetts General Hospital, assisting Dr. James Quinn and Dr. Becky Carlyle in their investigation of various neuropeptides that are dysregulated in dementia. I was ecstatic! It was beyond what I ever realistically hoped for, and I could not wait for 2021 to begin.

What awaited me was certainly not the usual laboratory environment: introductions impeded by masks or screens, dwindling stockpiles of materials, Zoom lab meetings and pauses between experiments to get a COVID-19 test.

Despite these unusual circumstances, I believe that being an undergraduate researcher unaccustomed to such an environment put me in a unique position, able to appreciate the situation in a way that might be difficult for researchers used to the conventional rhythms of benchwork.

As researchers we are all constantly busy and running around, focused on our timers and temperature-sensitive materials, which makes it difficult to build relationships based on interactions in the lab. Without the usual social events and even the simple act of attending meetings in a conference room together, becoming acquainted with my coworkers felt much less organic. But this allowed me to appreciate the usual ‘small talk’ and, although I never thought I would say this, I welcome any opportunity to have one of the infamously dreaded water cooler conversations.

As strange as it may sound, I still have never seen some of my coworkers without masks even in my fifth month of working at the lab. While that is a sad realization, it has made the small moments all the more meaningful. When I walk past someone on their lunch break, one of the rare occasions when I see them without a mask, and they give me a brief smile, that alone is enough to improve my mood.

I briefly mentioned the shortage of lab supplies that is impacting labs across the world. I am sure many of you have experienced the trials and tribulations that have accompanied ordering materials these past months, with standard supplies such as pipette tips and gloves taking months longer to arrive. We have experienced several standstills ourselves that forced us to put experiments on hold, and I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for those who are accustomed to materials arriving at the drop of a hat.

However, I found that this lack of availability has made the receiving of packages and supplies more rewarding and, as nerdy as it sounds, even exciting. Some days my coworkers and I cheer out loud when a long-awaited package arrives. Who would have thought something as mundane as opening a cardboard box with a single plastic tube inside could be so fulfilling?

I also attended my first conference while working at the ACTRU, the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference Neuroscience Next. James has commented several times how different the virtual conferences are and how much he misses the in-person aspects, but, without the wistful memories of prior times, my only reaction was one of pure intrigue. I was inundated with presentations and learned so much within a span of five minutes about topics that I only heard briefly mentioned in some biology class a few years ago. Since the first conference I have listened to many plenary talks, panels, and webinars, something which I am almost certain I would not have had the ability to do without the new online formats.

This experience has been quite the adventure. Although being the younger, naïve member of the lab is not always optimal at times, especially during a pandemic, it has helped me learn to appreciate the small facets of lab work that frequently fade into the background. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities that I have been given up to this point in my career, COVID-19 obstacles and all. I urge all of you to try and use this time as one of gained appreciation for the little moments that may have been forgotten over the years. After all, you know what they say about seeing life from the eyes of a child—why not from the eyes of an undergrad?


Elizabeth Ethier is an undergraduate student at Northeastern University. She joined the Alzheimer’s Clinical and Translational Research Unit in January 2021, where she assists Dr. James Quinn and Dr. Becky Carlyle in their investigation of potential Alzheimer’s biomarkers. Elizabeth expects to graduate with a Bachelor's in Behavioral Neuroscience and a minor in Data Science in the fall of 2022, and is planning to pursue a PhD and ultimately conduct research within the field of neurodegeneration.

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