When the university announced it was shutting down campus and shifting courses to being held remotely, soon-to-be-graduating seniors quickly realized that their time at Michigan would be coming to an end without any of the typical fanfare – no graduation ceremonies or wading north through the fountain – and without saying goodbye to their friends. But the end of the semester was disrupted even more for seniors in Earth who were finishing work on their undergraduate thesis research. For these students, their projects represent at least a year of dedicated, self-motivated work; completing a senior thesis is a huge accomplishment. This March, when lab access was cut off, some of these undergraduate researchers weren’t sure they’d be able to finish their work.
Steven Wedel’s work on Pleistocene climate change with Dr. Sierra Petersen depended on wrapping up labwork. He had been measuring stable isotopes on 130 thousand-year-old shells from Bermuda to reconstruct ocean temperatures during the last interglacial period, but he hadn’t planned on stopping there. When in-person classes went remote and labs were shut down in mid-March, his project was at the front of his mind. “My research was the majority of where I spent my time,” he told me during a call in May. “When I realized I couldn’t get the data I needed to finish my thesis, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, what do I do now?’”
Steven had more analyses to do and had even been planning on another field season in the summer. “My project got largely interrupted,” he said. “I had to drop the entire clumped [isotope] portion of it... which lets you get just the temperature. Without that, I had to make assumptions about the temperature based off of [stable isotope] predictions.” It’s a less powerful paleoclimate tool, but Steven was still able to reconstruct temperatures during this key period in relatively recent geologic history – which could help improve predictions of future climate change. “It’s a good look at where the climate might be in, say, fifty or a hundred years if global warming doesn’t change its course.” Thankfully, he was able to work with Dr. Petersen to get a thesis assembled with just the data on hand, though he had hoped he’d be able to return to lab to finish his work.
For Melissa Wood, finishing her thesis project wasn’t as much of a concern because she had been working on her fossil specimens since her freshman year. Advised by Dr. Jeff Wilson and Dr. Bill Sanders, both associated with the University of Michigan’s Natural History Museum, Melissa worked fossils of Embrithopoda, a rhino-like mammal that lived 56 to 28 million years ago. Her work involved describing, in painstaking detail, fossil remnants from different species within a genus. With the exception of a handful of exceptionally-preserved skulls, “it’s pretty fragmentary,” Melissa said. “It’s a few teeth, often broken, or a piece of jaw – so basically anything we can get is helpful.” The species she was most interested in is the subject of debate in their field, and a common problem in paleontology more broadly: one team identified fossils from a site in central Turkey as a new genus and species, but Melissa, her advisors, and some other colleagues believe they’re actually from an existent species.
To help solve this confusion, Melissa was working on compiling a new phylogeny for the genus, which she describes as a “family tree” filled with characteristics of different species to help researchers correctly identify fossils, when campus shut down in March. “I was about halfway done,” she said, “and I didn’t have access to my fossils anymore. I hadn’t been able to code all the characteristics from all the teeth, so I’ve just been doing my best to work from pictures.” And working from home, she added, is difficult for her. “Writing has been like pulling teeth.”
The end of Katie Seguin’s lab work with Dr. Nathan Sheldon was abrupt and stressful. She was studying how nutrients are used in desert by biological soil crusts, which are symbiotic communities of bacteria, fungi, and lichens. “If you’ve been out hiking and seen ‘Don’t Bust the Crust!’ signs, it’s for them,” she says. “We were looking to delve into phosphorus in these crusts because even though it’s an essential nutrient, it hasn’t been studied as much as carbon and nitrogen.” Katie had worked for months collecting “background” data, such as carbon and nitrogen concentrations and iron mineral phases, and she was helping get a new phosphorus-measuring experiment started when news of the shutdown arrived.
“I think I was in lab when the emails [about the shutdown] were coming through,” she recalled. “I was in the middle of trying to get this phosphorus extraction – which we’ve never done in this lab before – up and running… I thought, ‘Maybe class will be cancelled, but I can still come into lab,’ but once things shut completely down, I just felt panic.” Without the phosphorus data, she said, she wasn’t sure how she’d write her thesis. “The phosphorus data was, in a lot of ways, the most integral to my research, but it couldn’t be finished… But with my advisor, I was able to re-focus my questions and work with data that we had on hand.”
Once her lab was shut down, Katie was balancing her time between writing her thesis at home and working an essential job at a local produce shop. That, she said, actually provided some much-needed perspective on her research. “In the face of COVID, my thesis became – not that it wasn’t important to me – but it became obvious that there were more pressing issues at hand” than whether she had all the data she had planned on. “Research is interesting to me, but I could be putting these hours into helping people get groceries. It can be scary... even with the privilege of being young and having the means to self-isolate comfortably. But at least I get to see people.”
I originally talked with Steven, Melissa, and Katie in early May. So where are they now? Steven had also been planning on going on another sampling trip to Turks and Caicos to collect more shells, and to keep working on those samples in the lab over the summer. When classes went online, Steven and his roommates were able to find subletters, and he went to live with family in Georgia. Even with the stress of paying rent on an empty apartment removed, Steven was concerned about being in Georgia since the state had just begun loosening restrictions when we spoke in May. “It is what it is,” he said. “It’s scary with the state completely reopening, seeing people in packed restaurants and mingling without masks.” These days, Steven is maintaining quarantine and keeping an eye on the job market. “Since unemployment reached 33 million or so, I just can’t find anything. I’m still just searching.”
Melissa’s summer fieldwork in Turkey and Wyoming got cancelled, but because she is headed to the University of Chicago for graduate school in the fall, she’s confident she’ll be able to finish her project. Still, she says, “it would have been nice to be able to wrap things up completely” for her senior thesis. She’s been able to make a few day trips to scout out apartments, she says, but she’s expecting most of her interactions with her new department to be remote.
And right now, Katie is probably standing in a stream somewhere around Tacoma, Washington, as part of her summer internship with the United States Geological Survey. She’s part of the Washington Water Science team, researching how warmer river temperatures impact ecologically and economically important migratory fish species, such as salmon, in the Snoqualmie River. Her work will help inform local fishing regulations, which is a pressing issue for local Native American populations that rely on fishing for their income. “A fishing right with no fish doesn’t mean much,” she quipped.
Despite the obstacles COVID-19 presented them, all three students turned in their theses on time. These undergrads, and others like them, set the standard for resilience, adaptation, and positivity in the face of crisis. Katie reported that some of her friends with whom she’d lost touch had taken up letter-writing to stay connected. “I’m trying to see the silver linings and not get too bummed out.” And as of July, Steven is still applying to jobs but said in an email, “Even in the hard times, I’m still enjoying every second I have on this lovely planet.”