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Misher Students Find Safety and Success in Labs

By Rosie Digironimo

Published on October 7, 2020

Chemistry LabIt is 9:30 a.m. and students are pipetting chemicals into graduated cylinders. In addition to goggles, lab coats, and gloves, the students are wearing masks, and stand on an orange X. The precautions in place are to maintain safety during COVID-19 while they gain important hands-on training in the lab. 

They don't walk across the laboratory to weigh their samples or look through their microscope - the instruments are right next to them. The coronavirus has caused many changes this year and students are adjusting. To allow students to continue these hands-on experiences, USciences faculty got creative to schedule coursework that would ensure that the experience in Chemistry and Biology laboratories for the fall 2020 semester would be rich while still maintaining COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

Gabriella Cherian PharmD’24“I don’t mind virtual learning, but I really prefer to be in the lab,” said Gabriella Cherian PharmD’24. “I would have had a really hard time grasping the lab content without actually performing the experiment with my own hands. The foggy goggles are a nuisance, but overall it is great to see my peers and have direct access to my instructor in person.”

Hands-on lab skills and the unique opportunity that lab experience offers are important for many disciplines. This kind of instruction allows for synthesis and application of knowledge gained in lectures, and development of critical thinking and problem solving skills, which will remain with our students far after they step out of their first-year chemistry and biology labs. 

“On-ground lab is my favorite part of the day. It is much easier to have the instructor available to show you and explain what to do in person.” said Brett Hurrell MB’24. “ I am glad that I am getting to experience a college lab in a somewhat normal environment, minus the mask and the six foot distance. I am getting to do everything I normally would have done in a freshman lab.” 

Brett Hurrell MB'24First-year students taking Introductory Biology Lab were enthusiastic about their experience and the relationship they have been able to build with their graduate student instructor, Andrew Milcarek, a student in USciences Cancer Biology PhD program

Through a lot of hard work over the summer, faculty developed a cohort-based  system to ensure all students were able to take their necessary lab training in person. Madhu Mahalingam PhD, Assistant Chair of Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Dana Pape-Zambito PhD, Assistant Chair of Department of Biological Sciences were the masterminds behind the plan. Faculty who teach and coordinate these lab courses, Drs. Sarah Saylor and Yumee Koo, Ms. Catherine Purzycki and Mr. Anthony Weaver, then skillfully implemented the plan on ground. 

By learning in cohorts, a group of students attends in-person courses for a condensed, 4-week period, learning the critical lab techniques. After a cohort is over, the next group of students rolls in for the next 4 weeks of hands-on learning, while the previous group continues remote online lab instruction. The cohort system allows for social distancing and COVID-19 safety measures. The hybrid online and in-person cohort model does have some challenges. Because of the structure, sometimes students are in the lab learning about techniques that have not yet been introduced in the lecture. This does not stop our bright and highly motivated students and faculty. 

Biology LabHabte Ghebremichael and Tilka Fannana, the graduate student instructors for the General Chemistry Lab and PhD students in Chemistry and Pharmacology & Toxicology explained that they created specific preparation materials for each experiment and cohort so that they review the content prior to the lab, countering the timing problem caused by the COVID imposed restrictions.

“It is kind of hard sometimes because the experiment that we are running in the lab has not been introduced yet in lecture,” says Herrell. “I think it makes me stay on top of things and prepare ahead of time and this will make me a stronger student in lecture.” 

Despite the obstacles, USciences students are adapting and learning in their modified environment, practicing teamwork and communicating with their instructors.

Categories: News, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Students