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Departments suspend all undergraduate lab research, including for senior theses

<h5>Frick Chemistry Laboratory, the home of Princeton’s chemistry department.</h5>
<h6>Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Frick Chemistry Laboratory, the home of Princeton’s chemistry department.
Zachary Shevin / The Daily Princetonian

This week, department chairs and representatives informed seniors that all undergraduate lab research, including work done for senior theses, had been suspended. Students who had previously petitioned to remain on campus solely to continue thesis work were told they would have to return home. 

“The departments of Chemistry, Physics, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Molecular Biology, Geosciences and Neuroscience have all suspended undergraduate research as part of these efforts, which are important to supporting the health and well-being of the campus community,” wrote Deputy University Spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss in an email to The Daily Princetonian. 


Students were informed of this new policy at varying times – in some cases, only a day before March 19, the deadline by which they were initially expected to vacate their dorms and depart campus.

“Undergraduate research students in Chemistry and Physics, where these decisions were made this week, have been given additional time to relocate from campus,” added Hotchkiss. “Of course, those who meet other criteria to remain on campus will be able to do so.”

The guidelines constitute a change from previous policy. On March 11, the University announced specific criteria under which students could petition to remain on campus. Among the original qualifying criteria were students who “must conduct lab or other Princeton-based research on campus” required for their senior theses.

In an email sent to all undergraduate students on March 19, Dean of the College Jill Dolan stated that fewer than 500 students remain on campus. 

“Only students who met the strictest criteria, as outlined in our previous email, were approved to stay, since reducing our population density is our most important public health priority,” she wrote. 

In keeping with the original guidelines, seniors in the Department of Physics received an email on March 12, which explained, “our Department policy is that we prefer that all our seniors, that wish to do so, should be allowed to stay.” The email encouraged students who preferred to conduct their independent research on campus to submit applications to stay.


By March 18, the department had abandoned that policy. In an email signed by Herman L. Verlinde, the chair of the physics department, students learned, “the Physics department has decided that undergraduate lab research will not be continuing this term.”

According to Verlinde’s email, the University asked all departments to be “prepared to move towards keeping only essential research operations with only a minimal number of people in each lab.”

“In line with guidance from the Dean for Research, departments and researchers across campus have been working to streamline the operations of research labs and minimize the personnel using labs to facilitate social distancing,” Hotchkiss wrote. 

On Wednesday afternoon, seniors in the Department of Chemistry received an email similar to that received by physics concentrators. Robert L’Esperance, director of undergraduate studies for the department, informed students, “we are suspending all undergraduate thesis research effective immediately.” In addition to safety and well-being concerns, the email stated, “this decision is fairer and more equitable for all members of your class.”

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“I guess I understand not wanting people who remain to have an unfair advantage compared to those who do not,” wrote K Stiefel ’20, a chemistry concentrator, to the ‘Prince.’ “But I don’t understand why I can’t research outside my thesis. I love my lab and what I do, so I’m disappointed that I won’t get to finish my project regardless of whatever the grade on my thesis is.”

Stiefel is remaining on campus under a non-thesis-related criterion.

In his email, L’Esperance added, “we will take all of this into consideration when assessing your thesis,” and stressed that the department will strive to help seniors complete the requirements of their theses.

In a similar vein, Chair of the Department of Psychology Ken Norman wrote in an email to his department’s seniors that the department has suspended all in-person data collection, but that “if you were planning to do additional in-person data collection for your independent work, your advisor will work with you come [sic] up with alternative [sic] approach.”

“As a general principle,” he added, “the department will be flexible in adjusting the ‘deliverables’ and expectations for independent work projects to fit with the constraints of the situation.” He noted that due dates for spring junior papers and senior theses are “very likely” to be adjusted.

Norman emphasized that students should prioritize their “physical and mental health.”

In his email, L’Esperance further stated that students who had received permission to stay on campus for research purposes would need to leave by Thursday, March 19, when student ID cards (proxes) were to be deactivated at 5 p.m.

When reflecting on how the University handled the rapid changes, Stiefel wrote, “I think they knew that they would be taking this step quite a few days before it was officially announced to the chemistry department. Waiting until 27 hours before the deadline to leave campus is just unprofessional.”

As per Hotchkiss’ statement, students in the chemistry department have since been granted additional time to vacate campus.

“In general their lack of transparency and disjointed communication has been distressing,” Stiefel continued. “Thankfully there are dedicated students here who have [been] disseminating information, otherwise I would have [been] totally blindsided by this announcement.”

Unlike other departments, the five seniors in the Department of Geosciences who requested to stay knew they would be required to leave campus by Sunday.

On Saturday, March 14, Liam O’Connor ’20 received an email signed by Dolan informing him that the University had confirmed his registration to remain on campus.

Only a day later, Claire Fowler, the Senior Associate Dean of the College, informed O’Connor and other geoscience concentrators that they were “not in fact approved to remain on campus for senior thesis research” and would need to leave by Thursday at 5 p.m.

O’Connor is a senior opinion columnist for the ‘Prince.’

Students in the molecular biology and chemical and biological engineering departments knew even earlier. On Friday, March 13, Professor Elizabeth R. Gavis, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Molecular Biology, wrote to senior undergraduate students, “I am really really really sorry to tell you that the university is taking the hard line and will not allow MOL seniors to remain on campus past Thursday, March 19.”

She noted the only exception would be students who remain on campus due to “personal hardships” or “visa issues.”

On Thursday, March 12, seniors in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering received an email from the department’s director of undergraduate studies, Professor Mark P. Brynildsen, stating, “the department has decided we will not require seniors to continue to conduct lab work for these theses.” 

Students were “asked to leave campus by March 19” unless they fulfilled one of the other criteria in Dolan’s original email, giving them a full week to move out.

Like the chemistry department email, Gavis noted that out of fairness considerations, no seniors would be allowed to continue lab work past March 19, including those remaining on campus for non-thesis-related reasons.

“We will be making accommodations to acknowledge that you were unable to complete your research for reasons that were entirely beyond your control,” she wrote. “The faculty know you could have used more time and we value what you have already accomplished.”

This story is breaking and will be updated as more information becomes available.