Essay

A biochemistry professor and two students navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

Stephanie Chell Christine Heren Rebecca Roberts
By Stephanie Chell, Christine Heren and Rebecca Roberts
Nov. 16, 2020

When Ursinus College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, offered all faculty and students a choice between classes on campus or teaching and learning from home this semester, everyone was empowered to take the path that was right for them. This also meant that any course or lab taught on campus also had to be able to accommodate remote students.

Rebecca is a biochemist in the biology department. Steph and Christine are currently juniors and biochemistry and molecular biology majors. They both are enrolled in Rebecca’s biochemistry course this fall and work in her lab studying the effects of exposing a breast cancer cell line to environmental endocrine disruptors by measuring cell proliferation and migration. Deciding whether to return to campus was difficult; none of us wanted to jeopardize our health or that of our families. Here we discuss how we made our choices and how it has been going so far.

Rebecca’s perspective

Roberts-Rebecca-300x300.jpg
Rebecca Roberts

I transitioned to emergency remote teaching after the 2020 spring break. It went reasonably well considering I was balancing three kids at home who also were in remote school. I took advantage of every resource I could find — online communities, the pedagogical literature, campus trainings. I knew I wanted to be back in the classroom, the place that provides the most joy in my work, so I decided to design a hybrid biochemistry course and lab for the fall. I spent the whole summer working on it — redesigning the lab to allow for social distancing (no more chromatography in the small cold room) and recording videos to post on the learning management system. It was exhilarating to engage deeply in a new type of pedagogy.

Two days before the fall semester started, my son came down with a fever. It was scary (he’s fine; it was just a flu), and out of caution I chose to teach the first week virtually. I had planned for this contingency, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. After negative COVID-19 tests for my son and myself, I switched back to hybrid mode during week two. Entering the third week of the semester, I realized that I hadn’t done enough planning. I was barely one step ahead of the students, and the heavy grading hadn’t even begun.

While I’m doing my best to engage the remote students (I have three fully remote students, including Christine), my gut is telling me that they are not getting as much out of the course as those in the room, especially in the lab, where they are more passive observers. We are now at the midsemester point. My family experienced another health scare that moved me to fully remote for a few days. I see the fatigue in my students’ eyes and in my own in the mirror. I have begun doing yoga in my office to reduce my own stress. The exhilaration of the summer planning has waned. My focus now is on reducing student workload while maintaining rigor and achieving the learning objectives for the course.

When campus closed in March, my research lab was shut down. I came in to the lab to dump the cell cultures, and the students were switched to simply reading the literature and writing up their final papers. Given the cost of maintaining cell culture and the possibility of another campus shutdown, I chose not to restart the cell cultures yet. My research students are shifting to questions that can be answered with samples we froze last year. Only two students are allowed in the lab at a time. Some of the students decided to take a hiatus from the lab, so the pandemic definitely has reduced the productivity of my laboratory scholarship. On the other hand, I have managed to publish some pedagogical research on teaching during this time, so that side of my scholarship forges on.

Steph’s perspective

Chell-Stephanie-300x300.jpg
Stephanie Chell

As a science major, I wanted to be on campus this semester so I could get hands-on experience in my classes with laboratory components as well as continuing to work in Dr. Roberts’ research lab. I am now in the process of applying to graduate schools, so learning fundamental skills in my lab classes and research is imperative. With all this in mind, I decided to attend classes on campus, with faith in Ursinus’ COVID-19 protocols to keep students and faculty safe.

Living on campus feels completely different from past years but still offers me a sense of normalcy. It is nice to be learning in an actual classroom, and I feel safe doing so. Ursinus requires universal use of masks, social distancing of students in classrooms and occupancy limits on all rooms. All students head to the fieldhouse for weekly COVID-19 tests.

Labs, too, have created new protocols to promote social distancing. These include splitting lab time so only half of the former number of students is in lab at once, creating rotation-based schedules so student groups can complete different experiments during the same class period, and wearing face shields along with masks and safety goggles. While these protocols limit the amount of time students spend in the lab, I am grateful for all the time I get in there. Professors are working out how to accommodate both in-person students and remote students. The semester is now halfway through, and so far the changes have gone smoothly. Ursinus has had minimal COVID-19 cases on campus, and overall I am very impressed with our community’s dedication to keeping each other healthy.

Christine’s perspective

Heren-Christine-300x300.jpg
Christine Heren

I chose remote learning from home because supporting my family during the pandemic was important to me. Unable to be physically present in lab, I watch via Zoom the lab experiments that the majority of my classmates, like Steph, are performing in person. It’s difficult to follow along during the Zoom calls. I can’t see the whole lab, so it’s hard to anticipate a natural pause to ask a question or volunteer an answer. Dr. Roberts acknowledges this difficulty, though, and gives us remote students time to ask questions, which has been very helpful. One positive of remote learning is this individualized time to ask my professor a question. After lab, I email one of my peers for their results so that I can complete a lab write-up like everybody else.

I am a little worried about falling behind my peers and not having the lab experience needed to impress a potential employer down the line. Remaining home another semester means losing out on lab experience that I was banking on. My planned research experience fell through this past summer, and remaining home this fall prevents me from starting work as a lab assistant and continuing physically in Dr. Robert’s research lab. I’m still attending the weekly lab group meetings virtually, though, just to stay updated.

In addition, learning remotely can be frustrating since I share a workspace with my family members. With so much background noise, I often leave my mic on mute during Zoom calls. Consequently, I find it harder to participate in class discussions via Zoom than when in person, which is stressful because most classes grade for participation. Lastly, I miss being able to focus solely on myself and my school work. My home responsibilities are pretty demanding, so I’m frequently stressed out. It helps to think about something lighthearted, though, like how the 10-second commute each morning isn’t bad.

In summary

We all made choices; we are working hard and remaining flexible. Rebecca continues to balance work and home life. As she works through the challenges of virtual learning, Christine appreciates her professors’ accommodations for remote learners. Likewise, Steph knows that while being on campus may be a threat to her own health, the Ursinus community has done a good job at making campus safe for everyone thus far, and she is grateful to have the opportunity to be back. All of us still are adjusting to the changes. Whether in person or virtually, we are glad we can still stay connected through our passion for science.

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Stephanie Chell
Stephanie Chell

Stephanie Chell is a third-year biochemistry and molecular biology major at Ursinus College.

Christine Heren
Christine Heren

Christine Heren is a third-year biochemistry and molecular biology major at Ursinus College.

Rebecca Roberts
Rebecca Roberts

Rebecca Roberts is an associate professor of biology and of biochemistry and molecular biology at Ursinus College, Collegeville, Pennsylvania.

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