By Wendy Helfenbaum

Jasmin Chahal (back row, centre) with teaching assistants

Lab-based in-person learning provides essential training in observation, problem-solving and critical thinking, but the pandemic made it difficult to provide these valuable hands-on courses for students. Knowing how important these skills are, a group of professors in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Department of Microbiology and Immunology (MIMM) found an innovative work-around: Laboratory boot camp.

“Microbiology and Immunology is a very research-based major. Once the students graduate from this department, they have the skills to do any type of laboratory techniques, and to analyze those results,” says Jasmin Chahal, PhD, a faculty lecturer in the Department.

While students learned techniques and theory remotely through at-home experiments, they really needed lab time to become successful researchers and scientists, she adds. So when department leads Dr. Don Sheppard and Dr. Samantha Gruenheid approached Chahal in January to lead a lab-based mini-course, she was happy to step up.

“I love to engage students via quizzes or case studies. Dr. Gruenheid and Dr. Sheppard know I have a really creative side, so they wanted me to organize these activities,” explains Chahal. In mid-March, 80 mostly U1 and U2 MIMM students were split into smaller groups and set up in two labs in the Duff Medical Building, where they were tasked with several intensive experiments. “Each activity had a different story or mystery the students had to solve through laboratory experiments,” explains Chahal.

“We used two rooms and the students came in for two hours, so I crammed in as many activities as I could, and once they left, my TAs and I would clean everything up and get ready for the next group.”Masks, lab coats, disinfectants, hand-washing stations and safety kits were provided to make sure the students could work safely. Having an afternoon of in-person interaction also promoted engagement and good mental health, adds Gruenheid.

“Based on the evaluations from the fall semester, our students were really missing in-person lab experiences, so I’m thrilled we were able to address this by offering the lab boot camp,” says Gruenheid, the Associate Chair of Education in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“Dr. Chahal put together some really engaging exercises adapted to students at different levels, so we were able to offer options for the students who missed these experiences in both fall and winter. Based on the student participation and the feedback, it was a huge success. The program helped ease the disappointment many students felt last fall when their labs were cancelled, echoes Claire Hunter, a second-year Microbiology and Immunology student.

“This past year, we did a lot of online simulations, but it wasn’t really the same, so I loved this experience. I’m very interested in research, and this was a great way to learn more about laboratory techniques in microbiology and immunology,” says Hunter. Hunter enjoyed isolating bacterial colonies using the streak plate method, followed by a second activity – doing a Gram stain.

Fellow U1 student Andrés Pérez Tiniacos appreciated the chance to perfect techniques he had only tried through virtual labs.

“I really missed having in-person labs, so this was amazing,” he says. “The technique I was most worried about doing was the oil immersion, because you have to be really careful with the lenses of the microscope. It’s something I was never able to do right. But this time, I got it.” Feedback following the lab boot camp was overwhelmingly positive, with many students expressing their gratitude in writing, says Chahal.

“As educators, we try our best to make sure our students are learning in a healthy manner and in a fun way, but we’re also struggling to teach remotely, and we know the students are tired of it,” she explains. “When students told me they’d learned so much and that this was the highlight of their semester, it was really heartwarming.”


April 19th 2021