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How To Train an Undergraduate Researcher in The Age of COVID-19

Posted by , on 10 August 2020

The year 2020 has been challenging for researchers around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited access to our labs, it is not easy to gain hands-on bench experience. We are the undergraduate researchers in the Rodal Lab, from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Our lab primarily studies membrane trafficking events at the Drosophila neuromuscular junction using techniques such as in vivo imaging through fluorescence microscopy, mechanistic biochemistry, and analyzing the phenotypes of certain mutants lacking membrane-remodeling machinery. In a typical summer, we would spend time in the lab imaging Drosophila synapses on our spinning disk confocal, Airyscan, and SIM microscopes. This summer, the mentors at our lab created a remote learning model that actively helps us to get the most out of our time.

A group picture of the Rodal Lab, socially distanced.

For the past two months, we have been building necessary skills such as microscopy and image analysis techniques on a weekly basis, as well as attending online seminars and reading papers. We learned how to effectively use programs such as Fiji from Robert Haase BioImage Analysis lectures. Many of the skills we learned from this course can be directly applied to our own research. For example, we wrote a macro to measure the signal intensity of an entire image and in specific regions. We also learned how to use Adobe Illustrator for making scientific figures by following tutorials created by Christopher Gutiérrez and Prism for performing statistical analysis and creating graphs. We also participated in two iBiology courses, addressing topics such as the best practices for experimental design, career development, and the scientific method, that provided valuable tips and skills that will help us throughout our scientific careers. At the start of each week, we attempted to learn the skills ourselves as best we can. After that, the undergraduate researchers met to discuss what we have learned from the week’s assigned materials and answered the thought questions that our postdoc and graduate student mentors had prepared for us to challenge our understanding. Finally, at the end of the week, our mentors had the chance to give us feedback and answer our questions. This process provided us with an opportunity to continuously learn and build on our pre-existing research knowledge.

Even though we have not yet been able to return to the lab in person, we are already applying our microscopy skills by conducting remote image analysis. Once we are able to return to the lab in person, we will continue to use these valuable skills to grow as scientists. 

—– Update 1/14/2021 —–

After a summer of remote undergraduate lab training, we were able to return to campus to apply the skills learned and develop new ones. Spending time within the lab this fall was possible despite the ongoing pandemic by physical distancing, capacity restrictions, and other spread-reducing measures taught through a health and safety training module. These precautions taken by the lab were implemented in addition to all the social distancing and COVID testing measures implemented by Brandeis University and upheld by the community. 

As with our summer meetings, all of our lab-related meetings this semester were conducted via Zoom. We only went into the lab for hands-on training and tasks. Every week, each undergrad met with his or her mentor virtually to plan and discuss progress on independent projects, as well as in a group meeting with the entire lab held by our PI. To maintain the sense of community among the undergraduates, we also held casual weekly meetings to debrief on our larger group meetings, discuss any lingering questions, read papers together, and socialize. 

Due to the pandemic, learning bench skills, such as larval dissections and confocal imaging, without an expert by our side posed a unique and unprecedented challenge. To comply with the guidelines and to overcome this obstacle, our mentors prepared video tutorials and step-by-step written protocols for us to follow. They were also available over Zoom during our imaging sessions, and we could even share our screens to display what our samples looked like. We were also able to learn standard lab tasks, including autoclaving, fly flipping, and washing glassware with the help of more experienced undergraduates and senior lab members. 

We want to thank our mentors and PI for adapting to the current situation and encouraging our continued learning and growth as researchers. 


Undergraduate researchers who contributed to this post:

  • Julia Apiki
  • Jack Yuanwei Cheng
  • Rebecca Soslowsky
  • Mark Rozencwaig
  • Elizabeth Chernobelsky
  • Margalit Mitzner

We would also like to thank all of our mentors at the Rodal Lab for their guidance this summer and the valuable feedback on this post!

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/focalplane.2724

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Categories: Education

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