Published: July 13, 2020 By

Back to the lab

CU Boulder researchers are returning to work in their labs on campus under strict social distancing and safety guidelines. At the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Denver Business Challenge Endowed Professor and Department Chair J. Will Medlin and his students are adapting to conducting research under these requirements.

The Medlin lab currently has 11 students and researchers spending some time on-location.

“The general mood seems to be one of being excited to get back into the lab to make progress—and maybe just to get out of the house,” Medlin said.

Medlin and his students focus their research on catalysts for biomass upgrading, which can improve the process for making biofuels, converting CO to CO2 and breaking down plastics into monomers.

Will Medlin wearing protective glasses in the lab
Denver Business Challenge Endowed Professor J. Will Medlin

Many of the students working in the lab are first-year PhD candidates who need a lot of hands-on training and experience at the bench, which is typically facilitated by the more senior students. Unfortunately, work that requires close proximity to one another is not yet possible.

“Our focus is on those students continuing to work with techniques they already know,” Medlin said. “For the intermediate term, we’re looking into providing video tutorials on some of the less elaborate equipment, along with using Zoom for question-and-answer sessions regarding equipment use.”

While Medlin’s lab is largely focused on experimental, “at the bench” work, there was plenty for him and his students to do while staying at home.

“We had a number of papers we could work on writing remotely,” Medlin said. “There are also some modeling components to our research that we re-emphasized during the downtime. I had a critical employee, but he was not doing research—he was just making sure the equipment in the lab was not catastrophically malfunctioning.”

Medlin and his students divided the lab into “zones” that allow researchers to remain at least six feet apart. The students sign up for four-hour shifts to occupy these zones, ensuring that the lab is not overcrowded.

The restrictions of time and space have had some benefits.

“Students have really had to focus on developing their own experimental plan that is hopefully optimized to make rapid progress,” Medlin said. “They also have had more time to think longer-term about what they want the overall outcome from their thesis to be, as well as what they want out of their career beyond CU.”

Students adapt and optimize

Laura Paz Herrera is one of those students. Because most of her work requires the use of the lab’s reactors and characterization equipment, she had to shift her focus to reading and conducting data analysis at home.

As she returned to the lab, she experienced some trepidation about venturing out and possibly being exposed to COVID-19.

“During the first week back I realized that everyone was being very responsible in the Medlin lab and in JSCBB in general by following social distancing rules and disinfecting common areas, which gave me peace of mind,” Herrera said.

Most first-year PhD students like Herrera benefit from the guidance and experience of the older graduate students. With social distancing rules in place, she had to rely on email and text communication to get answers to her questions that typically would have been addressed in person.

But time away from the lab did provide some benefits.

“I have been able to develop ways to optimize my learning process by reading literature as I analyze my data, which has given me the opportunity to understand and gain more from my results,” she said. “I have been able to meet with my advisor, collaborators and with my research group remotely, which has kept me on track with my research.”

While being out of the lab was inconvenient for graduate student Mat Rasmussen, he was able to continue his work at home without much issue, at least at first.

"Fortunately, I was working on a paper when the university started locking down back in March, so I had a good amount of reading and writing to keep myself occupied at home for the first few weeks,” Rasmussen said.

“Obviously, you can always be reading more papers and keeping up to date on the literature on your computer at home, but personally I find it particularly difficult to keep focused on just reading for 8 hours a day, five days a week, especially when you're not able to put any of that new knowledge into practice through in-lab experiments.”

The biggest challenge for Rasmussen is the limited time available to each student in the lab. With the safety measures in place, he is able to run experiments for about 15 hours a week. This time is extra valuable considering it can take up to four hours to prepare for a single experiment.

“I think the solution is to be more strategic about your time,” Rasmussen said. “Since we all have more time at home than in the lab, it's critical that we use that time to analyze our data and think about what experiments will give us the highest probability of success, or will at least rule out the most variables in case that experiment fails.”

It is this time away from the lab that helped him develop patience and a broader perspective as a researcher.

“Sometimes, when you're in the lab running experiments every day, you can lose sight of the many observations and decisions that brought you to your current experiment,” Rasmussen said. “Now that I only have a limited amount of time for running experiments each week, I'm more actively analyzing and understanding the data on a day-to-day basis to hopefully make better game-time experimental decisions, and ultimately use my time more efficiently.”

CU Boulder is in the midst of a phased return to on-campus research and creative work in summer 2020. In this series, CU Engineering researchers share tips, tricks and takeaways as they navigate a new approach to research prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.