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‘Senior thesis research or lab work’ no longer a blanket criteria for remaining on campus

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

When the University announced on Wednesday evening that all undergraduates “who are able” would have to return home for the rest of the semester, an exception was made for students who “must conduct lab or other Princeton-based research on campus” for their senior theses.

However, according to more recent communications, “only a small number of seniors” will be able to stay.


On Saturday, March 14, Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire M. Fowler wrote to the Class of 2020 regarding a change in the exemption status for senior thesis accommodations and reiterated the need for students to return home for the health and safety of the community.

“Only a small number of seniors who have been identified by their departments as having a critical need to access campus resources to complete their thesis requirement will be permitted to stay,” she wrote. “The key word here is ‘critical.’”

In light of the increasing complexity of international travel with new border closings announced daily, Fowler said it was “imperative that we drastically reduce the numbers of students on campus [and] prioritize the needs of those who are unable to travel and return home.”

This announcement comes on the heels of several departments’ decisions to send students home, despite having laboratory-based research projects.

On Thursday afternoon, Mark P. Brynildsen — Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE) — announced in an email to CBE seniors that “in recognition of the unprecedented public health threat we are facing, the department has decided that we will not require seniors to continue to conduct lab work for their theses.”

Students who do not meet at least one other criteria described in Wednesday’s message from Dean Jill Dolan and Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun will be asked to leave by Thursday, March 19.


“We recognize that this will be a significant disruption to many of your capstone projects, and we are regretful that the current situation calls for these measures,” Brynildsen wrote. “[P]lease rest assured that we will do our very best to ensure that your final grades are not impacted by this unfortunate event.”

Audrey Shih ’20, a senior in the CBE department, described having received notice of this change a mere three hours before her flight home over spring break as “whiplash.”

“Since I was initially going to leave for break temporarily the day after the initial email, I only had one night to say goodbye to everyone who was leaving permanently, but I took comfort in knowing that I would see the other seniors working in labs after break,” she wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian. “After CBE announced that lab seniors were to go home, I had three hours to cancel my flight and change my travel plans, and say goodbye to everyone, including fellow lab seniors, forever.”

In light of the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic, Shih noted that as much as she was looking forward to having a comprehensive, perfect thesis, it wasn’t “worth the greater overall risk of having many students staying.”

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Despite the immense challenges, Shih described the immense amount of support and consolation she received from her lab mentor, who volunteered to “do what he could” to help run any final experiments.

The department has not yet addressed any changes to the components of the theses, including the written document, oral defense, and poster session.

Even so, Shih said that her principal investigator messaged her today with an encouraging reminder to not worry about how her thesis will be affected, and offered detailed suggestions on how to proceed.

“I consider myself very lucky to have such a thoughtful adviser who took the initiative to reach out and send me such a detailed outline to follow for my writing,” she said.

“It’s really unfortunate that this pandemic happened, and it’s particularly tragic for the Class of 2020 all across the globe,” Shih wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “I feel like we’ve all worked so hard for 3.5 years to lead up to a fun and relaxing senior spring filled with spending time with friends, enjoying our last concerts and performances and athletic events, putting on senior art shows and music recitals, and taking classes outside of our department that we’ve always wanted to take.”

Seniors in the Department of Molecular Biology (MOL) received a similar message from their director of undergraduate studies on Friday afternoon.

Professor Elizabeth R. Gavis wrote in an email to students announcing that the University “is taking the hard line and will not allow MOL seniors to remain on campus” past Thursday.

“I am sure that this is not the news you want to hear, but it is completely beyond our control,” she added, clarifying that exceptions will now only be granted to students with personal hardships and specific travel-related issues.

In addition, Gavis announced that all seniors will be prohibited from completing any form of lab work after Thursday, “out of fairness” to the entire department. This includes students allowed to remain on campus for other reasons.

On Saturday afternoon, an announcement was made to seniors in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) that there are now “no exceptions on academic grounds for any MAE senior,” despite the fact that several students had received notification of approval to remain on campus the day prior.

According to several sources, the Department of Chemistry is offering research exemptions to seniors, but only on a “case-by-case” basis, depending on the principal investigator (PI).

In addition, the Department of Physics has allowed “most people” to stay, contingent on approval from their respective PIs.

In an email to faculty on Saturday afternoon obtained by the ‘Prince,’ Dolan announced that the University received “nearly 1,000 requests” from students whose circumstances require them to remain.

“We’ve made exceptions for those with housing and financial precarity, as well as for international students who can’t return home because of global flight restrictions or other concerns,” she wrote.

Dolan stated that the University began with the assumption that seniors who needed on-campus resources to conduct their thesis research could remain, but that the “situation shifted very quickly.”

“We must reduce population density on campus as much as possible,” she wrote. “As a result, we must prioritize those students who can’t return home and ask seniors who can return home to do so.”

Dolan also announced that many departments have already released seniors from prior thesis expectations.

“Their lab work, out of necessity, might need to be suspended,” she added. “Their performances might need to be suspended. Their library research will move online.”

The email indicated that students who need archival resources should “scan as much as possible before they leave,” or work with “what they’ve already accomplished” to finish their theses as best they can. Dolan urged faculty to be creative about helping students accomplish their work from off campus, adding, “revising expectations all around will be most helpful.”

Unless departments have written to the Office of the Dean of the College specifically requesting an exception on academic grounds, all seniors not meeting other qualifying criteria for remaining on campus will be required to leave by 5 p.m. on Thursday, per the original announcement.

“We each had our own dream for what senior spring was supposed to look, and this nightmare was not anything any of us imagined.” Shih said.

“But this is one of those generation-defining events that we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives, tell stories about, and be known for by future generations,” she added. “We’ll see each other at Reunions in the future, or at commencement if that’s earlier — but for now we’ll hold onto the memories we were able to make in 3.5 years.”