By Octavia Feliciano
Typically, Professor Marcia O'Connell has five to 10 students working hands-on in her research lab, studying embryogenesis in zebrafish. In the 2020-2021 academic year, she had one. Still, it was an improvement over the end of the spring 2020 semester, when even O’Connell could not be in the lab.
O’Connell, a microbiologist and biology professor at the College, studies the genes and gene products that take a developing zebrafish from its earliest stage as a single-celled zygote to a multicellular, complex embryo. Students work with O’Connell, and other professors in the biology department with their own research interests, to get practical experience in the lab and prepare for graduate school.
“Right now I’m looking to go into medical school, and I want to be a well-rounded scientist,” said Stevia Nanfack Tsakem, a sophomore biology major who began participating in O’Connell’s lab in the fall 2021 semester. “Research helps me learn to think critically and ask the correct questions.”
Covid-19 has affected many of the on-campus experiences that college students typically anticipate, and biology research is no exception.
In response to the precautions necessary at the height of the pandemic, professors in the biology department adapted the research lab experience so students could participate in a limited capacity. When students and professors were finally able to come back to campus, research was able to resume where it had left off, though there was a period of reacclimation to the rhythm of campus life.
When the campus shut down in the spring of 2020, O’Connell’s lab shut down as well. It wasn't until fall 2020 that one biology major, Lauren Rudolph, then a junior, was able to participate in O’Connell’s research lab in person.
“It would have been nice if there were older students with more experience in the lab for me to learn from,” Rudolph said.“I learned a lot from Dr. O’Connell, but the pandemic stopped students from passing on the knowledge of how things work in the lab to each other.”
Other students participating in O’Connell’s lab during that time were reading published research papers and discussing them in weekly lab meetings that took place over Zoom. They planned future experiments to execute once they were back on campus.
O’Connell was far from the only professor in the biology department to face research disruptions.
Another was evolutionary biologist Professor Matthew Wund, who was accustomed to taking yearly treks to Alaska to gather three-spined stickleback fish destined for his lab at the College.
Students participating in Wund’s research accompany him on these trips and take part in catching, cataloging and caring for the fish they capture. Once back on campus, students oversee experiments with the sticklebacks to study phenotypic plasticity, an organism’s ability to alter its behavior or physical form in response to a change in its environment.
The Alaska trip planned for the summer of 2020 never took place. No Covid-19 vaccines had been approved yet, and travel was not safe. Even if it had been, there would be little purpose to gather more fish when it didn’t seem likely students would be back on campus to work with them.
Sure enough, classes at the College would be virtual for the next two semesters.
“That was when the trouble began for my research group,” Wund said. “The semester before we were working with data we had from earlier experiments. But in the fall of 2020, I was out of digital data for them.”
To give students in his lab a part of the research experience, Wund created a mini-course in the statistical programming language “R” so they could practice data analysis. As in O’Connell’s lab, Wund’s students read and discussed published research papers during virtual lab meetings.
“When I first joined we were going over different papers, but in spring 2021 I had some opportunities to feed and take care of the fish on campus,” said Seana Cleary, a senior in Wund’s research lab, with a double major in biology and public health.
Wund earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at the College, and during his tenure as a student he participated in undergraduate research with Professor Howard Reinert.
“I want to make sure my students are properly trained while giving them autonomy and responsibility,” said Wund. “I want them to have a good research experience like I did, so I make sure they’re not just a pair of hands. They understand their projects, and learn every technique. That was still a priority for me during the pandemic.”
In-person research resumed for some students in the summer of 2021. O’Connell’s students had the opportunity to work in person during the College’s summer MUSE program, and Wund was able to take his trip to Alaska accompanied by a small group of students.
In fall 2021, biology research at the College went back to normal for all interested in participating, with some additional personal protective equipment.
“We can do everything we need to in the lab, we just need to wear masks,” said Nanfack Tsakem.
While it was possible for students to be back in the lab, there were still some bumps in the road.
“During the first semester back on campus, I always felt like I was ten minutes behind,” O’Connell said.
Everyone had to relearn time management, especially students who have to balance their course load with their time pursuing research.
“There was a transition period, adjusting from working in my room on the computer all the time to interacting with other people,” said Cleary.
Even though students who participated in research at the height of the pandemic missed out on the full lab experience for a couple of semesters, O’Connell and Wund do not think students whose time at the College was interrupted by the pandemic will be at too much of a disadvantage.
“Fortunately in the bio department, we encourage students to do at least three semesters of research,” said O’Connell. “Years ago, it used to be that you did research as a senior, but we abandoned that model 15 years ago and started involving students from the first and second year.”
As a result, O’Connell said, most students interested in research had the opportunity to participate at some point during their time at the College.
Wund felt there was a small silver lining in that the limitations imposed by the pandemic did provide students with the opportunity to develop other key skills, even though they didn’t have as much opportunity for hands-on experience in the lab.
“The group of students that experienced online learning and online research are better at organizing data and making it available to each other electronically,” he said. “Being able to share and communicate information in a digital world is important even outside of the pandemic.”
O’Connell emphasized that students at the College are not alone in having a more limited on-campus experience. They’re in company with their cohort of college students everywhere.
“Circumstances sometimes make it impossible for you to perform at your best, and that’s ok. It’s always true, but it’s really true during Covid,” O’Connell said, reflecting on the difficulties of the pandemic. “You’re not in control of everything. It’s an important lesson to learn in college, especially for high-achieving students.”