Refining Lab Skills at the Biology Bootcamp
Over the summer, SCU students participated in a Biology Bootcamp where they practiced hands-on lab skills before returning to in-person classes.
by Sarah Stoddard ’23
For eighteen long months during the Covid-19 pandemic, students at Santa Clara University had very limited opportunities to learn and develop hands-on skills in the lab. Either due to classes and labs being conducted virtually or due to health and safety limitations on campus, many necessary resources were inaccessible to students for an extended time. With the support of the College of Arts and Sciences, Drs. Erin Schwartz (Biology) and Christelle Sabatier (Biology and Neuroscience) created a Biology Bootcamp that would allow two sessions of students to practice their lab skills for three to four weeks before the start of the school year. “Students worked with myself and Dr. Sabatier to help establish lab protocols for in-person labs, as well as run and optimize experiments in the new Sobrato Discovery building. The goals were to have a low-stakes summer research experience to get hands-on training, while also developing important tools for instruction this fall,” Schwartz explains.
Although labs conducted virtually during the pandemic were still beneficial for students’ learning, some skills simply can’t be taught and practiced online. During the bootcamp, students were able to access all the materials and equipment they lacked at home, and Schwartz and Sabatier guided them through developing all the necessary skills to succeed once they were back in classes. This training was an excellent opportunity for students as they transitioned into upper division classes which build from a strong understanding of introductory lab knowledge.
Students gained technical experience working with different laboratory methods, tools, and techniques. “The students practiced making solutions, pouring plates to support the bacterial growth that was critical to many of our experiments, sterile technique, microscopy and image analysis skills, and got a glimpse of what hands-on lab work might be like,” Sabatier says.
“In addition to building technical skills, the second session students got experience with setting up a laboratory for the first time,” Schwartz explains. “They had to identify the location of equipment, make stock solutions and plates, and set up the lab station for their experiments. They also got great experience with troubleshooting, which is something generally a part of true research experiences, but rarely found in an in-class model.”
Before participating in the bootcamp, Elaha Hamidy ’23 (Neuroscience) only had lab experience from two quarters of introductory classes in-person during her first year. “My lack of experience performing even the most basic lab skills was a big point of insecurity and anxiety for me, especially since I knew that I would be jumping straight into upper-division lab courses once school returned to in-person,” she explains. “This bootcamp was honestly my saving grace when it came to building my confidence back up with lab work as well as my confidence in my ability to adapt to new situations.”
“During the bootcamp, students attended several chats with SCU researcher panels so they could meet other scientists doing research on campus and learn about the research questions they pursue in their labs,” Sabatier says. This additional aspect of the bootcamp gave students insight into current research being conducted at SCU and also provided students with opportunities to meet faculty researchers they could potentially work with.
“I am considering joining a faculty research lab this year,” says Dhanya Paul ’23 (Neuroscience). “I really appreciated the opportunity to attend research panels and get exposure to the research that different faculty members are conducting to see what aligns with my interests.” This was an important part of the Bootcamp, as many students struggled to find research opportunities during the pandemic. “We know that these experiences are key to the decisions that students make about their career paths and are what potential employers in academic research labs or biotech labs are looking for in applicants,” Sabatier says.
Overall, the summer Biology Bootcamp was a huge success. Students practiced and refined their lab skills, found valuable research opportunities with faculty members, and gained the necessary confidence to prepare them for a successful fall quarter. “The bootcamp was a one time opportunity, but based on our experience and the feedback from the students, we would love to offer more of these types of opportunities for students to get a taste of a research lab and some support for finding more long term opportunities,” Sabatier says.
These long term opportunities could also be expanded to not only include those who are looking to improve their skills outside of the classroom, but also those who would like to experiment with laboratory research for the first time. “In the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, the Biology department has access to a project lab space where students who have received the appropriate training can run independent experiments,” Sabatier explains. “This is a brand new type of space for us that we are very excited to utilize for co-curricular activities and experiential learning opportunities. We are actively seeking out funds to support this work and open up more slots for students who want to give biology or neuroscience research a try.”