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Phage lab finds success with hybrid approach

  • Department of Biological Sciences

During what Kristen Butela, lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, half-jokingly refers to as “The Before Times,” her course-based undergraduate research class Foundations of Biology Lab featured four to five instructors teaching nearly 500 students across 12 sections.

The course is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance-Phagehunters Advancing Genomic and Evolutionary Science (HHMI SEA-PHAGES), led by Graham Hatfull, Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology. In the lab, students isolate, purify and characterize a novel virus from soil with the goal of understanding viral diversity and evolution.

“The question became, how do we have our students do authentic lab research in the middle of a pandemic?” Butela said. Their current model still accommodates nearly 500 students, but with seven instructors and 24 sections.

In these times, Butela noted that physical distancing guidelines permit only one student per lab bench, with a maximum classroom capacity of five students. Additionally, lab prep staff and shared equipment have been minimized, with work stations featuring all the necessary equipment set up for individual students and coursework divided into four major modules: isolation, purification, amplification and extraction.

Student responsibilities became more specialized, too, and divided among four-person teams — experiment managers, protocol managers, data managers and communications managers.

Only the experiment managers work in the lab, guided virtually by protocol managers. Meanwhile, data managers organize and summarize findings, and communications managers help draw conclusions and plan future experiments, while also sharing results with the class.

“We group students based on their initial preferences, with some fully remote,” Butela said. “Each team decides every three weeks who wants to be in person; some teams have a new person every three weeks, but some have designated one student to be in person the whole time.” When the term ends on Nov. 20, there will have been four total rotations.

Butela said the two most major challenges of this set up are interrelated. Many students have reported that taking classes online is difficult, finding the unfamiliar environment isolating. Further, remote technology is not always reliable, and different students may have access to different hardware, software or internet connections.

But Butela also reported that students are making good progress despite those challenges. Compared to previous semesters, their experiments have been more successful more frequently, with better adherence to protocol and less contamination. She also noted that documentation has been better, with complicated lab notebooks more precisely maintained.

“Because they’re working in a team, they teach material to each other, as well and communicate more, both to each other on a team and more broadly to the class,” said Butela, who thinks the department might modify course design to use teams of two, once the University and world move to The After Times.

“Restructuring allows more class conversations. Because then we pause and start talking about questions people have and sharing data,” she said. “We’re going to try and continue. Group work has opened up time for us to do more in-depth analysis of results.”