Returning to the Lab: Microbiology for the Health Sciences

  • Article Image

Dr. Susan Skelly teaches Microbiology for the Health Sciences course which includes both a lecture and lab in the Division of Life Sciences. What goes on behind the scenes with preparing to bring students back to the physical lab? Dr. Skelly shares her experience with returning to in-person instruction for the Summer 2021 semester.

Early in January 2021, the Division of Life Sciences was optimistic that some teaching labs would be allowed to hold in-person labs during the 2021 summer. Individual teaching labs would need to submit a detailed plan of how the particular teaching lab could be run safely and it needed to be approved. As anyone involved with a science teaching lab knows, it is difficult to replicate a hands-on lab experience in a virtual environment. However, because there were to be no in-person classes, it was better to have a virtual lab than none at all. At this point, I knew the vaccine for COVID-19 was effective and by the time the summer lab would start in late May, the vaccine would be widely available. I could finally see that there was a path to getting back to a more normal way of life, as we worked through the pandemic. I started to look forward to being in lab again.

I came up with a plan to maintain social distance and ensure safety measures. Students in the Microbiology Labs already wear appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) including safety glasses, lab coats and disposable gloves. We updated our laboratory policy to include the use of face masks, adhering to CDC guidelines. Washing your hands in a Microbiology Lab is routine procedure. I submitted the plan with one caveat, the viral rate of transmission needed to be low which would naturally happen as the vaccination rate increased throughout the winter/spring. I discussed this plan with the summer Teaching Assistant, Alanna Cohen, and the Laboratory Operations Coordinator, Amy Chu. They were both comfortable and assured that appropriate measures were in place to maintain a safe environment.

Certainly, I was happy when the plan was approved. I had many reasons for wanting to have the students taking Microbiology for Health Sciences lab in-person during the summer. The lab is primarily composed of nursing students and students interested in other careers in the health field. Since nursing students would be training in hospitals within months, I thought it was important for them to see that it was possible to return to a safe environment at school. All the concepts that students are taught in both lecture and lab about personal safety and controlling disease spread work, when put into practice. We always teach students that one can work safely with infectious disease agents as long as you follow the proper procedures. Of course this is even more important when working with patients. It seemed like a mixed message to students if we didn’t come back to in-person learning. It was as if they could work safely in hospitals with patients sick with COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases, but we could not create a safe environment for them in person at Rutgers. I had a student in my Spring’21 on-line lab course that dropped the spring lab and signed up for the summer lab when they heard it was going to be in-person. This gave me great hope that other students would sign up for the in-person lab as well.

I had other reasons for wanting the summer lab to be in person. The equipment in the teaching lab hadn’t been used since March’20 and I wanted to make sure everything was working properly. I also was concerned that the facial masks might cause a condensation problem inside the student safety glasses that are worn. I needed to confirm that the PPE, like lab coats, could be ordered and available for the fall semester. It was better to discover any problems during the summer with one section of students rather than to wait to the fall when we would have no time to correct a problem.

The summer lab was great. The students were happy to be back and told us so. Directly interacting with the equipment and procedures was an important factor in their understanding of the material. Students were able to see in real time the procedures and demonstrations and receive feedback on their own work. Being in person also allowed questions and clarification when needed. We all enjoyed the social aspect of interacting with people again. Even while maintaining social distancing, we engaged in collaborative work and discussions of our experiments. Most importantly, everyone felt safe and comfortable. We were able to adhere to the safety measures put in place and maintained a safe and healthy environment.

Since we had a smaller number of students to work with during the summer, we had more flexibility in our lab schedule. The Teaching Assistant, Alanna, and I decided to introduce a new lab in which students use PCR and gel electrophoresis to analyze DNA samples. This same principle is behind some of the COVID-19 tests, and so we thought the students would be interested in seeing this technique in action. The students also performed a nucleotide analysis on samples, after Alanna gave them the sequence data of their grass fungal samples.  The students identified their samples through a search of the GenBank genetic sequence database. We normally don’t perform these experiments during the school year since it is beyond the scope of the course. But since diagnostic techniques are starting to include more nucleotide analysis, it was a beneficial learning experience for the students.

Needless to say the summer lab was a success! I knew we could be present in a lab and work safely. We will continue to follow the protocols and guidelines set during this pandemic in order to safely continue in-person instruction this upcoming fall semester. We cannot become complacent during the coming months and let our guard down. Even when we think things are under control, the virus is waiting for the opportunity to infect any vulnerable person. There may be upticks in the rate of COVID19 infections along the way but I know we have the tools like vaccines, constant surveillance testing and facial masks to keep the virus under control until we reach herd immunity. I look forward to the fall semester and interacting with the students in person again.