SURF in the Time of Coronavirus

Amherst College Science Center

Despite the cancellation of numerous summer internship programs across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Amherst College Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) will still take place remotely, leaving us to wonder how this new platform might change the program. In the words of Jess Martin (the Administrative Director of the Science Center) “The short answer is: remote projects, 6 week program (versus original 8), no campus community presence, etc… The long answer will be the student experience which we’ll get on the other side of this six week program.”

Each of these changes impact the complex framework upon which participating research laboratories must now construct new internship experiences for this year’s SURF students. Below are some of the considerations made as labs adjust to a remote platform.

Are wet labs and dry labs impacted differently?

Depending on the type of lab, the breadth of research possible to perform this summer will greatly vary. In the Carter Lab, for instance, members study the mechanisms behind the folding of DNA in somatic and sperm cells as well as viruses through the use of a technique known as Tethered Particle Motion. This process allows researchers to observe the movement of a particle attached onto a DNA molecule as it folds, and the addition of a camera allows for the easy video recording of these movements. As a result, the lab still has a great reserve of data that has been collected throughout the semester to be analyzed by students this summer. According to Professor Carter, “The only thing that will be different is that there will be a larger focus on data analysis rather than data collection.”

On the other hand, wet labs like Professor Durr’s lab rely on a more hands-on approach to collecting data for analysis. As the lab is “centered around developing and understanding next generation polymeric materials” and their potential applications, members not only create said polymers but must also observe their function in real-time. However, without access to the necessary materials and set-up, students will instead be driving their focus towards studying and designing polymers that they can create once undergraduate students are allowed access to research labs. Likewise, Professor Hansen’s lab, whose group researches and creates systems of small molecules that spontaneously assemble into more complicated structures, is limited in its ability to collect new data due to lack of laboratory access. To overcome this setback, Professor Hansen plans on emphasizing readings and individual areas of interest in a manner akin to a special topics course.

Can students still acquire wet lab skills?

The average person might not have access to a centrifuge or a mass spectrometer off-campus, but this summer’s remote SURF program nevertheless plans to offer its fellows wet lab skills. Professor Jaswal’s lab studies how protein molecules (what she calls “workhorses of the cell that get stuff done”) get into structures and analyze how stable these structures are. In the past, members of her lab determined the lowest energy (most stable) configuration of each protein through mass spectrometry. While students cannot access a mass spectrometer remotely, Jaswal plans to use videos from the Journal of Video Experiments (JoVE) and from companies that produce lab equipment to teach her SURF students how to use a mass spectrometer. She also shared that, “much to the irritation of some of my students, I’ve been taking video protocol of what we’ve been doing.” With these videos and work previously completed in the lab, Jaswal hopes her students can understand data collecting procedures while creating tutorials that future members of her lab new to protein folding can use.

Although the data collection experience is no longer hands on, students can still develop analytical skills. Jaswal’s lab, for instance, uses programs such R, Mathematica, and Java as computational tools for data, all of which can be downloaded or accessed through the college server. By analyzing previously collected data, students can gain experience with these computational tools. The Jaswal lab stores all work on Evernote (a platform through which members can see the work of every student who has ever been in the Jaswal lab), which allows lab members to see and discuss each other’s work. This remote format stretches and enforces the soft skills of collaboration and communication in the lab, perhaps to a greater degree when fellow lab members are not on the same campus.

Are there financial or timing concerns?

Another common area of concern for those performing research this summer— even beyond the STEM community— has been the impact of duration and funding on the viability and outcomes of projects.

For instance, the Jaswal Lab, which originally would not be participating in this year’s SURF program, is now developing a series of online modules in order to properly train its newcomers under a limited amount of time. This includes learning about the various computational programs used in the lab, from Mathematica to R as well as Java, knowledge that is best developed throughout a longer period of time. However, the decreased length of this year’s SURF program made online training modules for these skills more of a necessity to ensure that students can enter their labs with a well-rounded skill-set.

Fortunately, some labs have faced less pressure from either finances or time; in the case of the Carter Lab, students already normally complete a three-week online training module, a tool that will help lab members stay on schedule this summer. Additionally, labs with resources like these already prepared also serve as valuable sources of support to those like the Jaswal Lab currently in the process of creating their own online training modules.

Perhaps one of the more complex challenges presented by the online SURF program is cultivating and maintaining lab culture between members, an aspect of the SURF experience of equal importance to the laboratory and professional skills developed. As the remote platform limits the ability for SURF students to connect with each other in a casual and convenient manner, professors have been busily brainstorming alternatives to the more familiar in-person interactions while still looking to reduce the amount of screen time exposure for students. Some initiatives include a summer book club, led by Jess Martin, Professor Hansen and Sarah Buhl, in which students have the choice of receiving and reading one of two books alongside their SURF peers, as well as “outdoor Zoom walks”, “virtual hallways” and weekly game nights hosted within individual lab groups.

Tune in to our Summer Reporters series to learn more about how SURF adjusts to a remote platform from the perspective of students!