Undergraduate students conduct research from home

When the summer semester came along, students still weren’t allowed on campus. Experimental labs were canceled, and remote labs became the answer.

Biology assistant professor Jessica Liberles presented undergraduate students, including Ingrid Lopez (19), Logan Tierno (22) and Patricia Milanes (22), the opportunity to learn and research the very thing that kept them from returning to campus – COVID-19. The Coronavirus Computational Biology Lab (BSC 4990L) allowed students to better understand COVID-19 and what is causing it to be so infectious.

“At some point during this class, chances are most of them will discover something no one has ever seen before,” Liberles said.

This isn’t the first time one of Liberles’ classes’ curriculum has surrounded a current outbreak. In 2016, students in her “Bioinformatics for Biologists” course researched the Zika virus.

This year, students got a similar taste, only virtually. Phase one of the six-week course consisted of students learning about SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses in general. Divided into groups, they gained fundamental bioinformatics skills and familiarized themselves with different gene banks and gathering data.

Lopez, Milanes and other classmates did not have prior knowledge of bioinformatics – as the only recommended courses for this lab are genetics or biochemistry.

As the weeks went on, students further developed their research thanks to scientists around the world continually adding to databases, which made it possible for this lab to be remote.

Milanes shares that aspects such as scheduling, remote learning and Zoom made it easier to work with group members.

Tierno and his classmates didn’t do any preliminary experimental gathering themselves as the sequences were already available through the NCBI, Protein Data Bank and GenBank databases. Tierno points out that feature itself made the course so attractive.

“Biology and sciences, in general, are shifting into an angle of answering questions that using these computational techniques would advance it in such a way that we’ve never seen before,” said Tierno, who believes bioinformatics should be mandatory.

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, 3D illustration shows surface spikes of the virus Glycoprotein S (red), Hemagglutinin-esterase (light blue), M-protein (light green), E-protein (blue)  K

While it is still very early investigating, students’ findings might indicate what specific proteins have potential to make SARS-CoV-2 more infectious towards humans.

At the end of the course, each group presented their research at the 2020 Biomolecular Sciences Institute Symposium – a virtual event that featured poster presentations by students and postdoctoral fellows.

While many were presenting projects they had been doing for over a year, Lopez was presenting on a project she had only been working on for six weeks.

Well-respected biologist Matthew DeGennaro was one of the faculty members in Lopez’s breakout room. Lopez said one thing that stood out for her was DeGennaro encouraging the group to publish their research.

Milanes, who had presented at symposiums before, shares the virtual symposium was much more intimate.

“It makes you want to continue on with phase two,” said Milanes, who now recently graduated and is beginning her post-graduation experience as a writing assistant.

Tierno also graduated and is headed to the University of Southern California to work at a lab before moving forward with his long-term goal of attending medical school.

As for Lopez, she is starting her junior year and hopes to continue with her research.

After much interest from students, the Coronavirus Computational Biology Lab is being offered this Fall semester.