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Faculty reimagine their research, research-based courses during COVID-19

Research faculty spent summer researching and preparing Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience classes for hybrid learning amid pandemic

Laboratories and lab-based courses have gradually regained momentum, filling up University faculty’s schedules once again and prompting the redesign of their day-to-day operations and class syllabi. As researchers and professors settle into this abnormal normal, they have reimagined their research-based courses and responsibilities as contributors to the scientific community.  

Curating CURE Courses 

Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience, also known as CURE courses, often congregate in a laboratory setting where students are granted the opportunity to design, complete and analyze the results of their own experiments without a known outcome, just like they would do in a professional research lab. Even before the University announced the return of the remainder of students to campus as part of the next phase of reopening, CURE course instructors reinvented aspects of their courses — in some cases with assistance from former students — to prepare for both completely remote and hybrid instruction.

Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Louis Lapierre and postdoctoral associate Joslyn Mills-Bonal from his lab co-taught BIOL 0600: “Genetic Screening in Model Organisms” for the first time last fall and are teaching a 12-person section of the course this semester. 

For the class, students study how eliminating genes from an organism often used in research — a worm-like nematode — affects their propensity for aging, according to the Courses@Brown site. Testing predictions for these studies requires procedures and machinery only available in the lab.

A version of BIOL 0600 was offered this summer to high school students as part of Summer@Brown, giving Mills-Bonal the chance to learn from the completely virtual experience and make plans in preparation for the undergraduate-level course. 

Given the University’s recent decision to welcome undergraduate students back to campus in late September, students in the course won’t be able to start in the lab until October and will have to be more judicious with how they use their time to run experiments this year, as is typical among scientists, he said. 

Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Ruth Colwill, who is teaching the CURE course CLPS 1195: “Life Under Water in the Anthropocene,” expressed similar sentiments about her course, which urges students to investigate how environmental pollution can stress aquatic environments by having them observe a striped fish called the zebrafish.

Having prepared for the resumption of in-person classes in October, Colwill rearranged the timeline for the course. The first couple weeks of remote learning is focused on reading primary literature about students’ research topics, including findings from students who took the course in previous semesters, and planning their projects. Students will then devote any remaining time they have later in the lab to perform those experiments. 

Colwill had also prepared for a situation in which the lab would be forced to go fully remote. “The point of a CURE is we’re doing something that nobody knows the answer to, and that won’t change,” she said, adding that no matter the situation, the course will maintain its collaborative nature.

Over the summer, Colwill worked with prior students and an undergraduate researcher “to come up with online components for the course, to reimagine it completely, … (and create) a lot of materials,” she said. 

Colwill has personally used faculty resources provided by the Sheridan Center and Digital Learning and Design to accommodate students learning virtually, such as the Anchor Program. “They’ve already created all the materials I need; it’s just a matter of incorporating them into my course,” she said.

Despite the challenges with redesigning these courses, faculty acknowledged several advantages to online or hybrid instruction. 

Colwill believes the course may be more inclusive now that discussions will be offered online. This semester, students will post presentations online and receive an entire class period to ask and answer questions, which she hopes will give them time to provide a well thought-out response while alleviating pressure. “There can be more depth to the interactions that students have,” she said.

Faculty Return to Research

Some researchers previously received the opportunity to return to their labs over the summer, with additional personnel gradually making their way back to the lab benches or the field. 

Yet, as faculty dedicated much of their summers planning for hybrid or online courses, they also lost out on time in the lab or had to juggle both tasks. “Burnout is a very serious problem,” Colwill noted, “plus the frustration of not being able to do what you really love doing.” 

For Colwill, it took several months before she could return to her lab to conduct experiments on her zebrafish and on mice to study their behavior. In those first days back, “I rarely saw people at Brown. I would hear maybe a door close, or hear some footsteps in a hallway,” she said. 

The lapse of time “made the work very difficult to interpret,” she added. Colwill has not initiated long-term experiments with her mice because of concerns that a change in public health guidance could force her to abruptly pause the research. 

When Mills-Bonal returned to the lab in June, she noted that it felt “eerie” during her later shifts, but the solitude also provided a sense of safety, and now that she has adjusted, “it’s kind of business as usual.”

Though the need for shifts minimizes time spent in the lab, which in some cases is less than the length of a full experiment, Mills-Bonal added that the lab members all “help each other out.”

Lapierre has also implemented Slack for his lab so he may assist researchers at all times, even when he cannot be physically present alongside them.

Professor of Orthopaedics Brett Owens, the principal investigator of the Brown Cartilage Lab at Lifespan and the Brown Sports Injury Laboratory, had to shift his focus from in-lab research on cartilage, a special type of cellular tissue located at body joints, to writing grants and publications. His other lab studying the occurrences of sports injuries continued to analyze data remotely, Owens wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and paleontologist Amy Chew has spent much of her summers, when she is not teaching at Brown, studying bones in an entirely different atmosphere: outdoors, where she unearths mammalian fossils on the other side of the country to study the toll of climate change upwards of 60 years ago on Wyoming’s wildlife. 

Researchers from multiple institutions have banded together each summer since the 1980s to excavate this region. “If you let it drop, there’s a significant amount of lost institutional knowledge,” Chew said. Driven by the gravity of continuing these investigations despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Chew and about eight of her colleagues from other universities set off to the Bighorn Basin, this time bringing their masks along with their tools. 

“Paleontological fieldwork is actually probably one of the most amenable kinds of work that you can do for social distancing and isolation,” Chew said, describing the openness of the barren badlands. 

But not everyone was able to return to the field site. Some researchers funded through their universities were not permitted to travel. As a self-funded researcher, Chew was an exception, but she could no longer have any University undergraduate students join her as they had in years past.

“It’s really sad because I think the student interest is really a fun, dynamic aspect of doing fieldwork,” she said. “For people who are students who would like to graduate at a certain time frame, it’s really unfortunate.”

Despite chiseling this year’s summer at the basin down from a full month to only 10 days in July, the researchers succeeded in making some progress, but altogether, “everything is just delayed,” including grant and funding applications that depend on preliminary data, Chew said.

Chew is not currently offering student research positions with her because of this uncertainty, and her work with fossils cannot be adapted well to a virtual position.

But Chew added that the “biggest impact” has perhaps been on students at the Warren Alpert Medical School enrolled in anatomy courses. When she picked up the call for her interview, she was taking a respite from the hours she had been spending in the lab over the course of four days, dissecting bodies and preparing them for medical students, which “takes days and days just to do one complete dissection for one block” of anatomy coursework. 

Typically, students do these dissections in the anatomy lab themselves for hours, studying the organs and tissues that all fit together like a three-dimensional puzzle to form the human body. In doing so, future physicians safely familiarize themselves with the internal structure of the body, preparing for days when they will have to care for patients. 

With the pandemic, this safety has taken on a new meaning as students can no longer spend such lengthy portions of time in the lab at risk of exposure to the virus. They will now rotate through, observing the work Chew and other Med School faculty have completed. The impacts of these changes remain to be seen.

In the meantime, just as researchers need to troubleshoot when their experiments go awry — whether it’s researching in the lab, conducting fieldwork or reimagining opportunities to involve undergraduates in the scientific process — the administration, faculty and students have problem-solved during this unexpected, global turn of events. 

“The fall is … definitely not without challenges, but there’s more support in place, and everyone’s had a little more experience, so I’m optimistic that … students will get a good educational experience online,” Colwill said.


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