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Social distancing has graduate students defending theses online

Family, friends tune in from afar to support major milestone

by Tamara BhandariApril 10, 2020

Luke Diorio-Toth

Across campus, centrifuges have stopped spinning, incubators have been shut off, and lab benches sit empty as graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis obey state and local shelter-at-home orders. Only researchers investigating ways to stop COVID-19 or performing other essential duties are allowed in the usually bustling research labs of the School of Medicine.

The closure of research labs in March has forced graduate students who planned to defend years of research – the last, critical step to earning a PhD – to adapt quickly. One to two School of Medicine graduate students have defended their theses online every week since mid-March, when the university, in response to the pandemic, began instituting changes to discourage gatherings.

“My defense was scheduled last summer,” said Alaric D’Souza, PhD, a Medical Scientist Training Program student who successfully defended his thesis March 30 from the third floor of his house. “My parents were supposed to fly in from California, but in early March I told them to cancel their tickets because I didn’t think it was safe for them to travel. In the end it worked out, because they were able to attend via Zoom. I have family all over – India, Ohio, Georgia – and a lot of people watched who wouldn’t have been able to come in person.”

A successful thesis defense traditionally is celebrated with a lab party. Once D’Souza’s defense was over, his labmates changed their Zoom backgrounds to feature silly pictures of him and toasted him from their homes.

“Congrats,” tweeted Gautam Dantas, PhD, a professor of pathology and immunology and D’Souza’s thesis adviser. “We promise to be more raucous when we’re no longer in COVID-19 lockdown!”

Tamara covers pathology, immunology, medical microbiology, cell biology, neurology, and radiology. She holds a bachelor's degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry and in sociology from Yale University, a master's in public health/infectious diseases from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in infectious disease immunology from the University of California, San Diego. Tamara worked in laboratories for about a decade before switching to science journalism. She joined Medical Public Affairs in 2016.