When it’s time to complete her weekly biology laboratory experiment, junior Claire Baptiste clears off a table, spreads out an old cloth, and opens a bag containing the necessary components. These days as this is all happening at home in Arlington, Virginia, sometimes it becomes a family affair.
“I’m living with my parents and siblings right now,” says Baptiste. “One of my younger siblings is doing a science class. So we’re all used to having these science experiments set up on our table at this point. It’s weird how our behaviors have changed due to the pandemic.”
Occasionally enlisting her dad for help timing, Baptiste has conducted investigations of enzyme catalysis, photosynthesis, genetics, and more. “I’ve done research at Penn and have wet lab experiences, so I knew there were some things you couldn’t do outside of that lab setting,” adds Baptiste, a neuroscience major with minors in nutrition and chemistry. “And even though sometimes writing the lab reports is difficult, it’s definitely rewarding that you can still get that experience from doing labs that you would be doing on campus at your home.”
That approximation of the laboratory experience was precisely what Linda Robinson, instructional lab coordinator for Penn’s Department of Biology, and teaching colleagues were envisioning during the summer when they learned that undergraduate courses would be predominantly online in the fall semester. Learning from the experience of going online for summer courses, Robinson worked with fellow lab coordinator Karl Siegert to develop and assemble laboratory kits and instructional material. Together with technicians Svetlana Kozik and Sean McClain, as well as other helpers from the department, they ordered supplies and packaged 570 lab kits for students signed up for Biology 101, 102, and 123 this fall. Those kits were mailed to students, or made available for pick up for students living locally.
“What I was hoping was the students would feel, ‘This is so cool that I get to do these things at home,’” Robinson says. “The reality of the pandemic is that students are stressed, but I have heard from some that the labs have been kind of an escape, a chance to get away from the computer and do experiments and even go outside for some of the assignments.”
Biology lab courses are a cornerstone of the curriculum for a huge swath of students, from those on a pre-med track to others who want to pursue a career in research. While some students may have had experiences working in labs during summers or during the school year, for many it’s the first real taste of experimental design and analysis.
That was the case for Emily Huynh, a first-year student from Rockville, Maryland, enrolled in the 101 course. “At first I assumed we’d be doing the labs online using different programs,” she says. “When I first got the box I went through it, looking at all the tools and fun stuff they gave us, like a pocket microscope. I remember thinking, ‘I hope I get to keep this!’”
Despite the distance, the lab courses and the hands-on experimentation has provided a welcome learning opportunity for students getting familiar with the methods of biological study. In the course of an experiment on enzyme catalysis, Huynh learned about the need for precision, having to repeat it a few times before she got the measurements and mixing just right. And despite the online format, she’s gotten to know some of the members of her lab group and her lab instructor, Staver Bezhani, during the course of the semester.
Tara Nguyen, also a first year student, was able to befriend her lab partners through group assignments in the 101 course. “During the group work we meshed together really quickly,” says Nguyen, of San Diego. “We have a group chat now and make an appointment to meet and work together one or two times a week on all the group labs.”
The lab courses are structured similarly to how they would have been had the students been on campus, with a three-hour block each week plus shorter sessions for lectures and group work. During the longer meeting time, instructors and teaching assistants walk through instructions for each experiment. Then students have the option of staying on Zoom while they actually do it, or logging off and completing it at a different time.
Sean Riksen, a junior chemical and biological engineering major living in Houston, has frequently opted to stay logged into Zoom during his experiments for the 102 course, also taught by Bezhani. A highlight of the course for Riksen, who hopes to attend medical school, was a series of dissections; the preserved specimens were sent to each student in specially prepared, shrink-wrapped bags. “Staver said the dissections are what turn a lot of people off medical school, but I really enjoyed it,” Riksen says. His parents, however, were not as pleased. “I think they breathed a sign of relief when I was done with those,” he says.
Some students were surprised with the sophistication of some of the experiments, like a gel electrophoresis assay, which uses an electric current to pull DNA through a jelly-like substance, separating pieces of DNA by their size.
“I didn’t expect that there was a way that we could do that at home,” Nguyen says. “And the results came out very visible and reminiscent of a classic gel electrophoresis that I’d done in a lab previously.”
A pocket microscope, capable of magnifying samples 120 times, also impressed. Leah Ingeno, a clinical research coordinator in the Perelman School of Medicine who is taking the lab course through the College of Liberal and and Professional Studies, took advantage of her location on campus to collect samples for a microscopy lab from Penn’s own Biopond, in James G. Kaskey Memorial Park. “I figured there would be a lot of little creatures in there,” she says. A first attempt, examining water collected from the pond’s waterfall area, was a flop. “Then I used a long pipette to collect water from a more stagnant area and did see something,” says Ingeno. “That was a lot of fun to do.”
Having students dispersed around the world even proved a benefit for certain aspects of the course, Robinson says. For the microscopy assignment, in which students could collect samples from around their homes, one course held a photo contest to showcase the most beautiful and exciting specimens they could find. In the 102 course, after a lesson on a certain species of lizards that live in the Caribbean, a student living in the Virgin Islands found one of the lizards and shared a photo with her class.
Not everything has gone without a hitch, however. A few lab kits were missing a component, which Robinson and colleagues were generally able to replace by mail. International shipping regulations proved an obstacle to sending some of the kits to students living outside the United States.
There was the time Huynh spilled a blue dye on her desk, and Ingeno had to take care that her cat didn’t disturb an overnight gel run, storing it in a drawer, away from prying paws. And Riksen felt compelled to do his experiments in the garage, storing his dissection specimens in a second fridge, away from his family’s gaze.
But overall, students report that their instructors’ meticulous preparation have helped a potentially challenging situation run smoothly.
“Dr. Robinson was on top of it from day one,” says Baptiste. “From a student perspective, that level of organization helps alleviate the stress of, ‘What is this going to be like? Is this feasible based on everything that comes with doing a lab at home?’ I’m definitely thankful for that.”
And Robinson has seen students excited and engaged, giving particularly positive feedback about the synchronous sessions, which give students and their instructors an opportunity to “be” together, despite the physical separation necessitated by the pandemic. “One of our goals was to build community through all the interaction and group work, and I think we’ve done that,” she says.