Doing Research in a Pandemic, An Interview with Molecular Biology Graduate Student Emily Mesev

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Nanako shares her interview.

For this seasonal series, I decided to interview Emily Mesev, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular Biology. I was interested in how her experience as a graduate student differed from my experience as an undergrad. Because undergrads aren’t allowed to be in the laboratory (at least for Molecular Biology), I’ve had to change my thesis topic and redirect it to become computational. I was excited to find out whether the graduate student experience had changed in similar ways!

Emily at her laboratory bench this week.

Nanako: First, could we hear a little about your background?

Emily: I’m originally from Britain – I moved to the states when I was 18 and went to Grinnell College for my undergrad. While I was there, I double-majored in Biochemistry and English. I’ve always been really interested in basic and biomedical research, especially in areas related to infectious diseases. Right now, I’m a fourth-year graduate student in Molecular Biology. I study signal transduction ⎯ specifically how proteins called interferons relay cellular messages during viral infection.  

N: Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D in Molecular Biology?

E: After college, I worked for a few years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), studying immunology and signal transduction. And the more that I did this research, the more I really loved it. I realized that I wanted to make research a career. So I started looking into graduate programs and really liked Princeton’s because my research interests are sort of interdisciplinary and I liked how interdisciplinary the Molecular Biology department was. I came in initially thinking I would focus more on the immunology side and ended up being advised to join two labs — one that studies innate immunity and virology, and another that studies signal transduction. And now I’ve found a little interdisciplinary niche for myself.

N: Has your research changed at all because of COVID?

E: My research is pretty much exclusively bench work. I don’t do computational work or any kind of modeling. I work at the bench. I do cell culture. I do a lot of biochemical assays, microscopy, cloning, western blots, and flow cytometry. And I’m sure there’s loads more. And for all of these assays, I need to be in the lab. So when the pandemic started, I found myself in this difficult position of like, ‘OK, what do I do now? I can’t do any of my research from home’. So I ended up just reading and planning future experiments.

It was really tough, though. I think a lot of people in my lab found it tough as well, since our projects essentially stalled for three months from March to June. But Princeton has been great about trying to get us back into the lab safely. So now I’m back in the lab and things are back to a relatively normal speed.

But I think the transition was still hard. You’re only working in the lab for half the day. I’ve learned to condense my experiment’s work so I can get a lot more done in that time.  I do my reading and writing outside of the lab, so that I can really devote lab time to getting as many experiments done as I can.

N: What kinds of rules are in place to keep everyone safe in the lab?

E: There are rules for how many people you can have per square foot of a room. That means for most of the lab spaces, only two of us can be there at a given time. We also get tested twice a week, and have our daily symptom check, just like the undergrads. All of our meetings are on Zoom, and we can’t have any in-person meetings yet.

(See here for more information about the regulations put in place for Princeton laboratories.)

N: Do you think research in Molecular Biology has changed at all because of COVID?

E: At the graduate student level, I noticed that some people are incorporating computational work a little bit more, which I think is a nice way to supplement some of the work they were already doing. But personally, I haven’t noticed peoples’ projects changing that much. Undergraduate projects, on the other hand, have definitely become more computational.

N: Is the experience of being in the lab lonelier?

E: It’s not too bad, but I do miss having the whole lab together all at once. And some people I never see any more. There definitely are things that I miss – like not being able to congregate in one room and just talk science. I think what I miss most, though, is just going to Prospect House with my lab and hanging out and eating lunch.

N: Outside of the lab, how have you coped with COVID-19? What do you do to take care of yourself in your free time?

E: Well, I’ve always been really into working out before I go into the lab. Before COVID I would go to the gym every morning. But since COVID hit, I’ve turned one of the spare bedrooms of my house into a home gym. So, I do my workouts over Zoom with some of my friends. And I can actually get a pretty good workout at home! I’ve got some weights and some equipment that I borrowed from my gym. I also try to walk every day for a few miles after lab to just breathe outside fresh air and get away from a screen. I also play piano and bake!

As someone interested in pursuing research after undergrad, it was reassuring to hear about how Emily, as a graduate student, has been able to return to the lab. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about computational biology this year and I know that it’ll be useful in my future endeavors. I hope that this interview provides insight on what research in Molecular Biology might look like in the near future – for both undergrad and grad students!

Nanako Shirai, Natural Sciences Correspondent