Seniors trade pipettes for Zoom in their last semester of college

Maggie Schlarman teaches Microbiology Lab, an
upper-level course hosted by the Department of Biology

In the first week of March, seniors enrolled in Microbiology Lab entered the laboratory in Rebstock Hall.  Maggie Schlarman, who teaches Microbiology Lab, had them continue experiments that would incubate while the students were on spring break. In a week and a half, they would return to campus and analyze the results.

They never returned.

The global spread of COVID-19 took a turn for the worse. More countries and US states were added to the do-not-travel list. Washington University’s Chancellor, Andrew Martin, made the difficult decision that undergraduate students would not return to campus. Washington University would move all classes online.

With a global pandemic lurking in the background, Schlarman moved her upper-level Microbiology Lab of 48 seniors online. She, like all instructors, did this in seven business days.

Schlarman had a unique challenge. How would she bring the laboratory to her students?

She took as many pictures of her students’ results and gathered data from previous semesters before the campus closed. Knowing that students would not be able to obtain results, she pieced together images using files available from online laboratory manuals and on the American Society of Microbiology website. She wrote in unique labels for each student using Photoshop. 

 “It is a way to mimic what could have been done and how that process would have worked in the laboratory,” explained Schlarman.

Experiments were not performed, but experiments were designed. Data were interpreted and hypotheses continued to be revised.

The experiments must go on

In the first half of the course, the students learn about the basic principles of microbiology – how to handle microbes and work aseptically.

The microbes of choice are bacteria – a practical choice given the size of the class and the available equipment that allow the students to perform experiments safely.

They perform staining techniques to visualize microbes under the microscope. They grow microbes in different media conditions and learn about antimicrobials. These experiments prepare them for the rest of the semester, where each student independently leads a bigger project.

“We were right at the transition,” said Schlarman. 

Before spring break, students started their independent projects.  They harvested a few organisms off of themselves – their hands, the bottom of their shoes, or their phones.

“They collected their samples and were in the middle of isolating the two bacterial species they wanted to identify,” Schlarman said.

As a control to monitor their process, she gives each student a “known unknown” or a bacterial species that she knows the identity of but they do not.

“Their goal is to ID that organism, as well as two others they isolate themselves,” explained Schlarman.

But how would the students gather data without being able to set up any more experiments in the laboratory?

Schlarman had a plan. She had her students propose the experiments they would have set up if they were in the laboratory. They did this via email communication.

“For example, each student tells me what media they want to use, why they are using that media, what organisms to use in “setting up” the experiment, and if there are any special inoculation or analyzation procedures,” she explained. “I then email the students pictures of what those species would look like if the designed experiment was performed. The students have to interpret the results and propose the next step."

Although the students are not doing the experiments, they are designing experiments, interpreting results, and writing about their results in lab reports.

Putting on someone else’s shoes

Students and instructors – often separated by time zones – find it more challenging to communicate. Sometimes Schlarman sends multiple emails asking for a response. 

“I eventually hear back with an apology and an explanation of how the student is struggling. Struggling because the student is an extrovert and misses people. It has been a hard adjustment for some,” Schlarman explained. “I am trying to think about – even more now than ever – what it is like to be in another person’s position."

By returning home, students are no longer protected by the homogeneity of campus life. Instead, each student faces a different living experience with unique challenges.

“I realized I need to think about the person who loves to talk to people all the time, the independent person who is again living with parents, or the person sharing a computer with two other siblings. They are all having a really hard time with this,” expressed Schlarman.

“I realized I need to think about the person who loves to talk to people all the time, the independent person who is again living with parents, or the person sharing a computer with two other siblings. They are all having a really hard time with this." 

Supporting students from afar 

As quickly as Schlarman moved her laboratory course online, so did the stay-at-home orders spread throughout the country. Students were not coming back to campus for the rest of the year. Commencement was canceled.  

“They are devastated,” Schlarman paused. “I think about them and their families. Washington University is a tough school. They made it. But they will not get their moment. That is sad."

Many of the students in Schlarman’s course are pre-health. They are hoping to pursue their goals of working in the medical field. Some were planning to take the MCAT for the first time this month. Others hoped to bump up their scores before applying to medical school. Now they are left wondering if they should hold off on applying this year. Some are wondering how to fill a gap year before going back to school when nobody is hiring.

“Sometimes they ask me what I think they should do. And I genuinely do not know the answer to that question. I am not sure anyone knows,” explained Schlarman.

Instead, Schlarman provides her students with an opportunity to talk.

“At the end of our Zoom sessions, I tell them I will stay on if anyone else wants to stay and talk. I always have a group that will stay. They talk about how they are doing and how their classes are going,” said Schlarman.

“We get the vibe that everything is going to be okay,” she smiled.