Virtual Science: How Faculty and Students are Continuing Research
“How are you and your students ‘doing’ science?” Several SCU faculty members answered this question, giving us a glimpse into how they and their students continue to do laboratory research in the COVID-19 world.
By Sarah Stoddard ’23
SCU student working in the lab pre-COVID
The world has undoubtedly changed. SCU faculty and students involved in laboratory research were especially impacted by the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. When all laboratory research was shut down in March, faculty members and students were forced to continue their research virtually. How was this transition? How much can really be done remotely?
Unsurprisingly, the transition has been challenging. In-person experiments had to be put on hold or canceled altogether; grant money meant to fund students in the lab had to be returned; more time had to be spent working out the logistics of doing research during a pandemic; and on top of all that, much lab-specific knowledge may be lost. “Senior students typically train new students on the intricacies of protocols and techniques,” says Michelle McCully (Biology), “but these students will likely graduate before we are able to bring on and train new students.”
Despite all of these challenges, SCU faculty and students across all departments—from biology to psychology, public health to chemistry & biochemistry, anthropology to physics—have learned to adapt to and make the most of the situation. Because of the transition to remote work, the focus of labs has shifted. Students across the board “have had to divert their attention from their experimental projects to analyzing existing data, updating protocols, doing literature research, and engaging in project planning,” says McCully.
Although this is not an ideal situation, it is not a total loss either. Faculty and students are finding ways to uphold a productive learning environment. Kirsten Read (Psychology), has had her students refurbish older work that had previously been shelved. “Even just a fresh look and new analyses of older data has been a way to teach some data analysis skills,” says Read, “and allows us to explore whether there are interesting publishable conclusions that we may have overlooked a couple of years ago.”
Additionally, many students have had the chance to publish during this time. Students working with Craig Stephens (Biology, Public Health) spent most of the spring analyzing data and writing, resulting in two papers published during the summer. They’re not the only ones. Two students working with McCully completed a literature search to support a paper she was working on, and three others working with Eric Tillman (Chemistry & Biochemistry) have seen success as well. “We have just submitted an NSF grant, and also had a paper accepted earlier this year,” says Tillman. “We are writing another paper that will be out in 2021.”
DeNardo Scholar Christian Jimenez ’21 (Biochemistry) has undertaken a remote project learning new programming and advanced data analysis. Part of this project will include working out ways the Fuller Lab can do more efficient analysis, plotting, and comparisons among their experimental data set. “He will streamline what is now a pretty tedious workflow and will allow us to make more and more interesting comparisons between data sets that we collect,” says Amelia Fuller (Chemistry & Biochemistry). “I'm optimistic that this will open up new experiments to us because we'll see connections or correlations that otherwise might have been missed.”
After many months of working remotely, faculty and students have gradually been allowed to come back to campus for research in a limited capacity. Laura Cocas (Biology) says “we’ve recently resumed research with students back in the lab and are happy to be working in person with them again. We’ve lost a lot of time and have some projects put on indefinite hold, but look forward to ramping up again slowly.” In-person research will continue to be limited until further notice, but for now, faculty and students are excited and grateful for the return, however small, to their labs on campus.
There’s no doubt the past several months have been a trying time. The situation was unexpected and difficult, but SCU faculty members and students have remained resilient. Even in a virtual environment, SCU continues to promote the development of and care for the mind, body, and spirit of each individual. Read summed it up nicely when she said “We’ve had to refocus our energies in the past nine months, but we're doing our best to keep asking new questions and produce new findings with what we've got.”
Due to State and County orders, effective December 9, 2020 all in-person, on-campus student work in the labs is no longer permitted. Students are still able to conduct work remotely.