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University researchers trying to make up for lost time

A rendering showing what the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s chemistry building will look like following an ongoing addition and renovation. The chemistry building is one of 28 buildings damaged by recent flooding at the campus. (Rendering courtesy of UW-Madison)

Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — First came the 2019 flood. Then COVID-19 hit.

And this summer, maintenance and construction difficulties closed most of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chemistry Building, a shutdown lasting nearly 90 days. The building’s two affected wings just reopened last week.

For the chemistry department’s professors, researchers and graduate students, the past three years have not only been a frustrating inconvenience but also an experience that has forestalled months of work and delayed careers.

About a hundred of the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the department signed a letter sent earlier this month to administrators requesting direct compensation for the time that has been added to their degrees because of the most recent problems. The letter also asks UW-Madison to financially support students with appointment extensions for cases in which 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 spearheaded the sending of the letter. “We really haven’t had a normal year since 2018.”

The building closure alone affected the graduation timelines for 221 of the roughly 400 graduate students, UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said. Because the length of the doctoral program varies by student, the additional time that will be needed to complete the degree also varies.

“The university is keenly aware of the significant hardship our chemistry students, staff and faculty have experienced,” department chairperson Clark Landis said in a statement. “We’re working to address these impacts through a broad array of services and resources.”

UW-Madison said it would meet many of the requests students asked for in the letter. For example, the university is providing funds to researchers to extend their appointments based on a model developed by the chemistry department and campus leaders that takes into account the numbers days they have lost, McGlone said.

But should UW-Madison be obligated to make up for the loss of delayed future earnings? The letter compares the current annual graduate student stipend of about $29,000 to the average $72,000 salary 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 address these hardships.”

The department’s series of unfortunate events began with the ominously named “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 led to a water main break at the Chemistry Building that damaged the first floor, basement, sub-basement and elevators.

The flooding displaced most everyone in the building for a couple weeks. But a few research groups working in the building’s lowest levels found themselves shut out of their work space for months.

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

Kinsley estimates it took about a year for the lab to return to a fully workable space for the research group. The lab was just beginning to regain momentum in early 2020 when the pandemic shut it back down.

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

COVID-19, of course, affected research beyond the university’s chemistry department. Scientists across campus found themselves sidelined from their labs. Many used the spring of 2020 to write papers, submit grants or analyze data.

The university’s Graduate School created a $1.2 million fellowship program providing single-semester support for doctoral students close to completing their degree but whose progress was delayed by the pandemic. Officials encouraged faculty to apply for supplemental federal funding that would cover students taking care of family members.

Nationally, a quarter of graduate students said they expected to take longer to complete their degrees, according to a 2020 survey of 3,500 graduate students at a dozen public research universities. Most of the respondents estimated they would need another six months to a year, and more women than men reported extending their timeline.

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

Roy was able to get work done but at a slower pace. He came to terms with it because he knew every researcher around the world was suddenly less productive.

“Everyone understands that that period of time comes with a big asterisk,” Roy said.

Kinsley, too, found workarounds. Trying to find humor in the situation, she said her research group joked about how they had endured a flood and a plague, wondering what came next in the Bible’s 10 plagues inflicted upon Egypt.

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

In August, during a scheduled shutdown for HVAC work expected to last eight days, part of the ventilation system collapsed and with it went most of the building’s air flow. Performing chemical experiments without appropriate fresh air and exhaust is dangerous, so two 1960s-era building wings were closed for nearly three months, affecting about 250 researchers.

It’s unclear who, if anyone, is at fault for the infrastructure failure. McGlone, the UW-Madison spokesperson, said the university didn’t have any additional detail to share. The financial cost of the shutdown is being tracked but she said an estimate was not yet available.

Roy’s research group relocated into a space that is a fifth the size of their lab, and half of which is shared with another research group. He estimates he completed less than half the work he would have done in his normal lab space.

Sixth-year graduate student Marie Fiori flew to Stanford University last week to test her samples with specialized equipment, which would have happened regardless of the shutdown. But the building closure prevented her from running preliminary tests.

“I should know pretty much everything about these samples before I fly over and I don’t feel quite confident that I do,” she said in an interview from the airport.

Some research groups had equipment in the building that could not be relocated. For those individuals, research completely halted. Roy said he knew at least one student who temporarily relocated to another state to have access to a collaborating university’s facilities.

Consider the cohort that started in the fall of 2018, faced the flood in 2019, grappled with the pandemic in 2020 and dealt with the building closure in 2021. Now in their fourth year, the longest uninterrupted period of time they have worked in the lab is just a couple of months.

Graduate students credit the department for doing all it can to help. Landis, the department chair, committed to writing a letter explaining the circumstances of the past few years, which the next few classes can submit with job applications, Roy said. Other administrators rescheduled student rotations, exam dates and research proposal deadlines.

Roy is still on track to graduate this winter and has a postdoctoral position lined up at another university. He estimates he produced about one fewer paper due to COVID-19 and another because of the building shutdown.

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

“My internal motivation has been battered,” she said. “Any type of momentum was stopped several times.”

Although many researchers returned to the Chemistry Building this week, Kinsley and her research group have not, at least for now. More construction is scheduled in the coming months for the floors just below their lab, presenting another potential source of disruption.

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

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