Inclusion of Undergraduate Research Assistants in Laboratory & Studio-Based Research

In the course of producing new knowledge and creative work, the University’s research laboratories and studios provide important educational benefits to undergraduate students. Mentored research opportunities are, in fact, an essential part of the educational experience of many Notre Dame undergraduate students, providing them with important intellectual and/or professional training. Additionally, undergraduates’ participation in research activities often augments faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholar, and graduate student goals. 

Although the engagement of undergraduate students in on-site research projects is prohibited during Phase 2 of the University’s Lab and Studio Reopening Plan. In Phases 3 and 4, the inclusion of undergraduate students is permitted. That said, each research director must individually balance the benefits of providing undergraduate research experiences in the lab or studio against the recent COVID-19 related disruptions to research and the ongoing associated constraints on operations.

To assist with this evaluation, the guidance below highlights several important issues, concerns, and suggestions for faculty members to consider when contemplating the extent to which undergraduate students can be included in research programs. 

  • Because undergraduate students are novice researchers the research director and other senior personnel must have the willingness and capacity to take special care to onboard and train undergraduate students with respect to the operations of the lab.
    • Undergraduate researchers must be able to understand and comply with all protocols established in the lab reopening plan, including health screening, disinfection protocols, physical distancing, etc.
    • Training regarding the use of some equipment, supplies, and other resources may be difficult in situations where physical distancing must be maintained.
    • The research director should be aware of the additional responsibility and time needed to supervise undergraduate research assistants and be mindful of graduate students’, postdoctoral scholars’, and other senior lab members’ capacity to do so at this time.
    • Undergraduate researchers should not take part in research activities if they cannot receive appropriate safety training to protect themselves and others while working in the lab.
  • Undergraduate research assistants are a large demographic within the research community and need to be incorporated into lab and studio work schedules in a manner that enables appropriate social distancing and does not exceed occupancy restrictions. 
    • The timing of the transitions from Phase 2 (25% capacity, no undergraduates) to Phase 3 (50% capacity), and from Phase 3 to 4 (100% capacity), have not been established. It is not currently known if the University will be able to implement Phase 3 and/or 4 prior to (or during) the fall semester. 
    • The number of undergraduate students that can be included in a lab/studio may be more limited than in past practice.
    • Senior theses should receive priority, particularly if faculty members have made prior commitments to mentoring the theses.
    • Additional limited research opportunities should favor juniors and seniors, particularly those for whom the experience would be of critical importance for future career or education goals.
    • Consider whether undergraduate research assistants could begin work remotely at the start of the semester and transition to on-site lab/studio activities should conditions allow increased lab density.
      • In cases where undergraduates cannot be included in on-site research at the start of the semester and where remote work is not possible/feasible, consider creating a half-semester research course to run from September 28 through November 12, 2020. Students would need to register at the start of the semester. If conditions do not ultimately allow undergraduate researchers to begin on-site work by September 28, the course can be dropped by October 9 provided the student maintains full-time status (12 credit minimum).
    • When a lab/studio is unable to accommodate an undergraduate researcher either remotely or on-site, particularly a researcher with prior work experience in the lab/studio, research directors should do their best to help the student identify potential alternative research placements.
  • Recognizing the unique intellectual development goals of undergraduate research assistants, the research plan for undergraduate researchers should anticipate future disruptions to lab operations.
    • Local conditions or government directives may cause a slowing or hibernation of lab activities that could cause termination of the on-site research experience.
    • For undergraduates enrolled in credit-bearing research-based courses, research directors should identify, in advance, research/scholarly activities that can be completed remotely by an undergraduate researcher that would continue to support the student’s intellectual and/or professional development.
    • For undergraduates employed within labs, research directors should, in advance, identify work that can be completed remotely, if any. These students should be made aware of the potential impact future disruptions may have on their employment.   
    • If an undergraduate student finds they are uncomfortable in the lab experience, they should be permitted to drop the special topics/research course (if enrolled) or discontinue employment without penalty.