Biological Sciences Division Responds to Remote Learning Concerns

Instructors in the division hosted a Zoom Q&A to answer questions about lab work, research opportunities, and medical school requirements given the University’s switch to online classes.


The Reynolds Club.

By Alexis Florence

Editors’ note: This article is part of a series that details how different College divisions will approach the switch to distance learning. Reporting is also available for the Division of Social Sciences, the Division of the Humanities, and the Physical Sciences Division.

Professors from the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division (BSCD) hosted a Zoom Q&A session last Thursday to address student concerns as the University moves to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Jocelyn Malamy, Master of the BSCD, started the conversation by stressing the division’s commitment to accommodating all students’ situations.

“All instructors have agreed and are aware that there needs to be a way for everybody to substantively do all the work and complete the course no matter what their challenges are. In some cases we’ll just have to make alternatives,” Malamy said.

A major concern for many students is completing hands-on labs without lab equipment or proximity to instructors.

Christopher Schonbaum, a Senior Lecturer in the BSCD and a director of labs said that instructors are hoping to modify lab sessions into a substantive virtual experience while accommodating students in different time zones or who have other restrictions. 

Ultimately Schonbaum said the structure of labs are up to the individual professors, and students should reach out to their respective instructors. 

“Labs will be run,” Schonbaum said. “What those labs will look like, just like the labs for all the different courses are structured in different ways, the labs for these remote quarters will be very different from each other, and you’ll have to talk to the individual instructors to figure out how they’ve set up their labs.”

He and some of his peers will be shortening lab times to two hours; however, some professors will opt for the traditional four-hour time slots. Schonbaum said some professors will focus more on research papers or will use data and pictures from previous years of the course, though these changes are not universal.

Second-year Phoebe Hall is taking one lab class for spring quarter and has yet to be given specific information about how the labs will be run. However, she feels the remote labs will not live up to the in-person experience.

For some classes, labs have the reputation of being the most fun and educational part, Hall said. “I bet no matter what they arrange for labs will be a disappointment because nothing can replace the value of doing the science hands-on.”

On-campus research within the BSCD has been put on hold, with only essential personnel being allowed in campus buildings to carry out critical building services. However, Malamy and Jason MacLean, director of the neuroscience major, stressed other ways for undergraduate students to be remotely involved in research, including Micro-Metcalf opportunities supported by the Career Advancement office.

Malamy also explained that plans for summer fellowships with the BSCD will continue. Deadlines for applying for summer research have been extended by a week to allow students to talk with faculty about their application. However, Malamy said that students should keep in mind the uncertainty about summer on campus.

“If the campus is not up and running in summer, there’s of course nothing we can do, but we rather be prepared and have everyone all ready to go start their lab if things do go as we hope they will,” Malamy said. 

Plans for thesis projects are also continuing across the division. The deadline for the projects is still week eight of spring quarter, but MacLean encouraged students to reach out to advisors with any questions. MacLean also stressed that no student will be unduly punished for any constraints created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joni Krapec, Senior Program Director of UChicago Careers in Health Professions, also participated in the Q&A to speak to medical school requirements. Krapec said she has been communicating directly with various medical school programs and said schools will accept the class and lab credit from remote classes for their requirements.

“Given the challenges that everyone is facing this quarter and given that basically every university in the country has moved to online learning, all medical schools will count any lab that you took this quarter as fulfilling their requirements,” Krapec said.

Stephanie Palmer, a professor in the physics department as well as the department of organismal biology and anatomy, stressed the need for students and professors to collaborate in an email to The Maroon.

“It’s important that we are available to talk not just about coursework but also the challenges individual students might be facing throughout the quarter,” Palmer said. “It’s our job to be responsive to those needs and flexible, while hopefully delivering some welcome intellectual––if remote––engagement with the ideas and concepts all of our students came here to soak up and contribute to.”