Grad students keep research afloat during the pandemic

Masked person in red shirt holding research equipment, surrounded by vegetation and water

Graduate student Daniel Yim treks into the field for his thesis research. All photos in this article by Kate High.

Students at the University’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center ‘paddle against the tide’ to continue thesis work

Spring is a time that many graduate students look forward to at San Francisco State University’s Estuary and Ocean Science (EOS) Center. Usually, it’s when they can get out into the field — canoeing through channels, tiptoeing in salt marshes or collecting microscopic critters — to gather data for their theses. Unfortunately, going out into the field — or out anywhere — has been a lot tougher since last spring. Yet with a lot of determination, these students have managed to continue their scientific training despite the global pandemic.

two people sitting in a canoe on a body of water with hills in background

Graduate student Catie Thow and her roommate

While the pandemic did not completely change second-year graduate student Catie Thow’s project, it did delay her research by four months during the field season, which would have been timed to coincide with when the algae she studies begin to bloom after winter. Fortunately, Thow hasn’t had to go it alone: Her roommate conducts research in the same area, allowing them to carry out their field work together — a great help for the field sites that have to be accessed with a canoe. “I’m thankful that I’m still able to continue my thesis but [worry] about the work that I was not able to do,” Thow said. “Not knowing how this is going to affect my thesis causes a lot of anxiety.”

Thow’s research focuses on how microscopic algae, a crucial part of the marine food web, change across the seasons in three different tidal channels. Collecting this data will hopefully reveal which parts of the slough could provide the best food sources for endangered species like the tiny but important Delta Smelt fish.

Daniel Yim, a third-year graduate student, didn’t have Thow’s luck in roommates. He had to trek through field sites himself, and since his field sites cannot be easily reached while social distancing, he has to use a two-person canoe alone. Normally crossing open channels with your equipment requires a lot of effort, Yim says, and paddling against the tide, wind and currents alone in a canoe built for two can be exhausting. “Occasionally, I’d have to run myself into the bank in order to rest,” he said. As a result, he spends lots of time getting his feet stuck in thick, goopy mud while making his way to his field sites.

Yim is investigating an invasive ribbed mussel that’s had a presence in the Bay Area since 1889. Although it has existed for more than 100 years on the West Coast, not much is understood about this organism, and Yim hopes to discover the unknown impacts the ribbed mussel has on the invertebrates that live within San Francisco Bay.

kneeling person leans over dock into water to collect a water sample

Graduate student Allison Adams

SF State’s COVID-19 safety guidelines allow for limited access to research facilities. That means some students’ field seasons were simply put on hold, forcing them to delay research and even graduation or creating hard-to-fill gaps in data. For Yim, that meant being in the position of trying to find a job without a completed degree. (Spoiler alert: For the happy ending to his job hunt story, skip to the end of the article.)

Another challenge of the pandemic has, for many, been loneliness. That’s been true for Allison Adams, a third-year graduate student at the EOS Center. Graduate school and students depend on sharing knowledge, from coding to lab methods to tips and tricks in the field. Adams says that she and her labmates have missed out on the opportunities that come with bonding during fieldwork.

Adams studies the growth and productivity of copepods — tiny crustaceans that are essential to the marine food web — in the upper San Francisco Estuary. She says it’s inconvenient for labmates to maintain social distancing while they support each other in the field, but that her lab continues to be incredibly understanding and supportive, and she has always felt safe and taken care of. “When you look at other examples of universities, how can I complain about the safety protocols and procedures?” she said. “I am grateful to SF State for taking that stance early on.”

Of course, things are a little more optimistic for graduate students than they were last summer, between a rebounding economy and vaccine-fueled hopes of a more normal summer ahead. And Yim? He found that job eventually, as a program assistant for the California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science, and Technology. “I enjoy the work I’m doing and how it helps the whole CSU,” he said.

More about these students’ stories can be found on the EOS Center’s graduate student blog, the Undercurrent.