back to news Aug. 20, 2020

COVID-19 research course showcases adaptability, provides opportunities for undergrads

Zeynep Benderlioglu is all about adaptability.

When confronted with a new challenge, new technology or problem, she rises to the occasion.

She keeps that same attitude of adaptability when she’s instructing her Undergraduate Research Lab (URL) in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology (EEOB).

“I decided that this virus is here to stay for at least two years; our lives will be affected until at least 2022,” she said. “Until then we will have to adjust and do things differently, so I decided to invest in online teaching because of that.”

Normally an in-person experience that teaches undergraduate students the process of conducting proper scientific research, Benderlioglu’s URL course quickly transitioned into a completely online experience focused on research around the coronavirus.

That transition happened in just about a week. But Benderlioglu had been laying that groundwork for years.

She first began seeing a need for this type of course in the early 2010s. After advising undergraduates who needed to be introduced to the basics of scientific research, she formalized two courses in 2013. There was now a chance for students at that level to understand how to develop research questions, discover literature, analyze reports and conduct experiments hands-on.

The first course was for younger students and explained the basics of scientific research. In the upper-level course, more experienced undergraduates would get to actually conduct the research they proposed.

Then the pandemic hit. With campus closing, undergraduate research opportunities were falling apart. So Benderlioglu pivoted.

“I decided, OK, here’s an opportunity,” she said. “The future is online. Why don’t I design a third course that will tap into this demand that will teach really useful skills and that will make an impact?”

And so, EEOB 3194 was born. The online course first offered this summer, titled “Infectious Disease Ecology, Evolution, and Transmission,” filled up in five days.

The course was designed to help students engage in real-life research on an active pandemic while keeping a focus on the evolution, ecology and transmission of infectious diseases. Instead of in-person lab time, the course featured an added emphasis on news monitoring and data analysis, with Benderlioglu providing links to news stories surrounding the coronavirus and publicly accessible data from places like Johns Hopkins University.

Based around Benderlioglu’s instruction, the students brainstormed research topics with a link to the coronavirus. Among others, research topics included the links between COVID-19 and domestic violence, the virus’ impacts on health care workers and the disease’s impacts on marginalized communities. In early August, they completed the semester with a virtual symposium where the students presented their work.

The class was a hit with the students, and it has already been added to the fall semester. But Benderlioglu’s adapting isn’t done yet.

This time around in the course (now EEOB 3498), she plans to keep the focus on research surrounding COVID-19 but will add an emphasis on applied statistics and geographic information system software ArcGIS. She played around with ArcGIS, taught herself the program and hopes the students can find interesting ways to visualize research for a broader audience.

The class is already full.

So where do the modifications stop? How long does Benderlioglu see this course lasting? Will it stay focused on the coronavirus?

“I always change projects every year based on what’s going on,” she said. “I am hoping that in two years’ time, this will become boring, which will mean that we have left the virus behind.”

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