With scientists and leaders on the national stage outlining our future as a country, science classes at Deerfield have simultaneously been researching COVID-19 and its lasting effects on our campus.
Science Teacher Dr. Jenn Taylor assigned her Molecular Biology class to research the novel coronavirus in its initial stages – “before it was even called COVID-19,” as she remarked. In this advanced research class dedicated to the study of biomolecules such as DNA and proteins, students explored questions including whether the virus mutates from patient to patient, and how it differs from MERS and SARS structurally and mechanistically. The project began as early as February because of the efficiency of a small data set, where the genetic sequence of the virus for each individual patient was transcribed. “Every time a patient was diagnosed, researchers sequenced the virus and made it available to the general public,” Dr. Taylor said.
“This is certainly a historical time, especially for molecular biology,” added Dr. Taylor. “Researching the coronavirus was very relevant to the skills Molecular Biology students have learned and want to develop.”
However, the students in Dr. Taylor’s Molecular Biology class took it a step further than just researching the virus. In recent weeks, they have studied how all students and employees returning to campus would be tested if Deerfield opens its campus in the fall. While Dr. Taylor admitted that they “only scratched the surface,” she went on to explain the conclusions they approached: in order to get the concentration of nucleic acid required to identify the genetic code for COVID-19, a mere nasal swab will not be enough. These conclusions were a way for students to apply what they learned in their research as practical tools for the administration.
While students in Molecular Biology learned valuable information about how the virus functioned and spread so rapidly, another Deerfield science class was interested in a cure for COVID-19. This spring, students in Dr. Hill’s Organic Chemistry course researched “the mechanism of action of anti-virals.” This concept in virology refers to the route a medication takes to cure a disease such as COVID-19. As grim as the situation is, this evolving research is the practical application for the coursework that his students had only previously learned through simulations and journal articles. The students’ recent research on COVID-19 reflects how the field of viral study is constantly shifting to accommodate new discoveries, and how scientists’ understanding must also change with them.
Atang Peloewetse ’20 has been researching reverse-transcriptase inhibitors and their role in anti-viral therapy. “To me, ignorance is not bliss,” he said. The class’ in-depth research has been a means to stay educated about what the scientific community is doing around the clock, and it generated both sympathy and respect as a learner.
So, what’s the importance of these classes taking time during this crucial trimester to research this virus? At an administrative level, the more information we understand about the virus and its treatment, the more educated Deerfield’s decision about the fall will be. At the educational level, giving time and resources to study relevant topics such as COVID-19 is exactly the high-level learning educators have been striving for.
Part of this need for relevant research in the classroom comes from a desire to “leverage student agency,” said Dr. Hills. “There’s something beautiful about letting students choose what they want to research.” He affirmed that giving students the agency to choose their topic of research will almost always result in a relevant, current field of interest. With this logic, teaching students about the ever-changing field of virology and therapeutics will cultivate an interest that will hopefully last a lifetime.