Professor of molecular genetics Oscar Kuipers. Photo by Bram Belloni © RUG

Students may graduate late

Fighting for lab space

Professor of molecular genetics Oscar Kuipers. Photo by Bram Belloni © RUG
The labs at Zernike have been operating at just a fraction of their capacity for months. Staff is working as hard as they can to ensure everyone has a spot. ‘We can barely hire students to do their final projects.’
17 November om 16:33 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.
November 17 at 16:33 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.

Door Thijs Fens

17 November om 16:33 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:16 uur.

By Thijs Fens

November 17 at 16:33 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:16 PM.

Thijs Fens

Volledig bio

Freelance journalist
Full bio

‘Here you can clearly see the effects the coronavirus is having’, says Andrys Weitenberg.

The housing manager at the Faculty of Science and Engineering points along the empty hallways of Nijenborgh 4. Normally, the hallways are bustling with students and staff talking about their research or on their way to class or a lab. ‘It used to be so busy here. Now the hallways are practically empty.’

Not that researchers and students don’t want to use the labs; in fact, the number of students has increased by 10 percent this year.

But under ‘normal’ circumstances, labs have room for one person for every ten square metres. With the corona measures in place, it’s one person for every twenty square metres. ‘That means we only have room for half the people we normally do in our labs’, says Weitenberg.

That’s not enough. 

60 percent capacity

At first glance, it doesn’t look too bad. Students are hard at work in the lab; liquids bubble in their glass beakers and machines do their work.

In the spring, the labs were completely empty. Over the summer, they were running at half capacity, and today, they’re running at 60 to 70 percent. The problem is the backlogs keep rising. Just not as fast as they used to. 

The biggest issue in the lab is that students are constantly on the move

‘The biggest issue in the lab is mobility’, says Marc van der Maarel, director of the Graduate School of Science and Engineering. ‘Students are constantly on the move, going from their desk to equipment and back.’

The doors of the labs have clear signs on them saying how many students are allowed inside at once. Half the work benches are cordoned off with tape, and students have to strictly obey the set walking directions. But it’s not a permanent solution.

Limited time

At least the issues with theoretical education are still manageable. In an effort to allow as many students into the labs as possible, their time inside is limited. Students have to prepare, read the instructions, and develop their work at home as much as possible. That way, they only use the labs for necessary work, which means more students can use them.

The number of experiments that’s required of students has also been decreased. ‘Students normally have to do their experiment ten times, but we’ve reduced that to five’, says Van der Maarel. ‘They still meet the requirements that way. We have to continue practicals, even if they look different now’, he says. ‘Most of the time, it’s impossible to replace them with theoretical assignments.’

Students normally do experiments ten times, but now it’s only five

Wherever it is possible, students switch as much as possible. ‘We did that in some cases at medical sciences’, says professor of medical microbiology Jan Maarten van Dijl.  

The departments are also scheduling practical classes more often. ‘It enables us to teach more. The lab assistants have been working so hard’, says Van Dijl. People also work nights and weekends. ‘It’s nearly as busy as during the week.’ 

‘But the situation is dire’, he acknowledges. ‘Although it varies per research group and department. The medical department is facing the issue of many of their students having to intern at hospitals right now.’

Three hundred first-years

The biology department is having issues as well, especially since more people registered than they’d expected. ‘We weren’t expecting nearly three hundred first-year students’, Van der Maarel admits. It was very difficult to properly schedule the mandatory practical lessons in September and October, he says. ‘But every single first-year student of biology was able to run several experiments. It’s far from perfect, but we’re working on it’, Van der Maarel says in conclusion.

Dirk-Jan Scheffers, associate professor of molecular microbiology and programme director for life science and technology, agrees. ‘As far as I know, everything is going well. It takes so much work and planning, but we can still do a lot, even with the current restrictions in place.’

But the biggest challenge is still coming: arranging the final projects for bachelor and master students. ‘Especially since students can’t go abroad anymore because of corona.’ He can’t promise no one will suffer delays. ‘But we’re doing everything we can to prevent it.’

No graduating students

Oscar Kuipers, professor of molecular genetics, is all too aware of the issues. ‘We barely have the capacity to hire students for their final projects. We just don’t have the room. I feel so bad for them.’

Doing a PhD is pretty stressful already and this makes it even worse

Clemens Mayer, assistant professor of biomolecular chemistry and catalysis, hasn’t been able to hire any students, either. ‘They need to work eight hours a day for six months. I simply don’t have room for them, even though I would love to have them.’

And let’s not forget the PhD and post-doctoral students. Kuipers employs thirty of them for his research, and he knows they’re having a hard time. ‘They can’t reduce their research by doing five experiments instead of ten. Their research needs to be comprehensive.’

No money

Kuipers’ research groups is working in shifts; one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. ‘That gives us a little breathing room’, he says. Nevertheless, eight to ten of his students will suffer serious delays. ‘Anywhere from three to six months.’

That’s a big problem, especially for international PhD students. Kuipers employs twelve from China and Mexico. Their home countries pay their salary, housing, and allowance. ‘They don’t take delays into account, so the money runs out after exactly four years.’ 

Kuipers has been helping the students out with funds from his research group so they can keep going for a few more months. The UG has not been doing that, though, and he’s frustrated. ‘We’ve been given no compensation for any of these PhD students, while the faculty can still cash in on the PhD bonuses when they’re done.’

Different method

Mayer knows about the problems, too. Fortunately, his research group is small, so it’s easy for him to shuffle everyone around. ‘But colleagues have told me how much of a hassle it is to have big groups. We don’t know what’s going to happen. What if we go into lockdown again? We’d all have to abandon our research again.’

Under normal circumstances, his PhD and post-doctoral students work at the lab five days a week. Now, they only work three. Mayer has noticed how this has changed his research. Students prepare and do analyses at home, when they would normally do so at the lab. ‘Or one person will do ten minutes of lab work for someone else, so the latter doesn’t have to come to the lab at all. There’s less time to do everything, so we have to plan everything really well and get creative.’

Mayer is also worried about his students’ mental well-being. ‘Doing a PhD is pretty stressful already. It’s intense and difficult. But all this makes it even worse, since they have to change the way they do research and they don’t even have a social life anymore’, he says. ‘I’m talking to them a lot, and I know they’re worried. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure this ends well.’