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Keep on Trucking: Science Labs in the Time of COVID-19

November 22, 2020

Campus during COVID

As my alarm clock wails, I reach for the thermometer that’s next to my bed. Half dreaming, I open my computer and click through a handful of questions in the Oberlin Daily Symptom Survey. Thankfully, I answer “no” to all of them. By the time I get to the final question, the thermometer pressed beneath my tongue is beeping incessantly: 97.7°F. Relieved, I submit the questionnaire, make some tea, and start the day.

Over the course of the semester, COVID cases in Ohio have been steadily rising. With chilly weather setting in, the increase has been alarmingly dramatic in the last few weeks. Living during a pandemic is frightening, and sometimes I feel entirely helpless. Thankfully, though, there are concrete ways the Oberlin community has helped slow the spread of the virus. Some actions come from the administration – a testing center on campus, a de-densified three-semester plan, and spaces organized for distancing and sanitation, but many more steps come from the community members who call Oberlin home: we wear masks, meet outside, avoid large gatherings, and have worked to adopt online communication. Together, our collective action has made a big impact. Despite case numbers soaring around us, transmission in Oberlin is among the lowest in the county.

Snails, Sponges, and the Start of the Semester

One of my classes, in particular, has found creative ways to adapt to the changing circumstances. Ironically, it’s a class where we study adaptation. This semester, I’ve been taking Invertebrate Biology. From intricate glass sponges to parasitic worms to hermit crabs with stolen shells, we’ve explored the evolution of animals very different from ourselves yet vital to life on earth. Over hundreds of millions of years, these organisms have adapted to drastic changes time and time again. Now it’s our turn to learn from them.

From the beginning, our class has taken measures to avoid virus transmission. Three days a week, bleary-eyed students log onto Zoom for our 9 AM lecture, leading classes without ever leaving home. On Thursday afternoons, we gather in person for lab, sitting six feet apart and wearing masks and face shields.

Quickly, invertebrate lab has become one of my favorite parts of the week. We’ve observed pollinators, fed tuna to a jellyfish, captured snails, and slowly built a marine tank complete with multicolored corals.

More than that, lab has been an important way for me to spend time with people. Like a lot of students, I’ve struggled with loneliness this semester. Seeing friends has become a special occasion, something that’s scheduled a week in advance and dependent on the weather. Some days, it feels easier and safer not to see people at all. Lab has been three hours a week to learn together with a group of people as fascinated by bumblebees' waggle dances as I am. 

Lab at the Red Truck

Professor Garvin unloads lab supplies from her truck.
Lab at the Red Truck

As COVID cases in Ohio began to rise, it became clear it was time for our invertebrate class to rethink the way lab worked. Even as we maintained distance, spending three hours inside posed some level of risk. So, on a bright October afternoon, I walked to an empty parking lot to stand beside a red pickup truck. This was our classroom for the day, distanced and entirely outside. The truck bed was piled high with gloves, trays, dissection tools, and earthworms. One by one, each of us went up and collected our supplies. Then, my friends and I went and sat at a nearby tennis court. While people in the next court over practiced their serves, we found each of the earthworm’s five hearts.

My teacher, Professor Garvin, also brought in her compost heap. Inside were coffee grounds, eggshells, and dozens of wriggling red worms. She gave me a cup to take home and, in the weeks since, I’ve been building my own compost system.

After holding lab virtually for a week, we found ourselves outside again. This time, though, we met at the Oberlin Arboretum, ready to survey the aquatic organisms at Plum Creek. First, though, we had crayfish to dissect. One by one, we gathered our supplies from the red truck and set about finding nerve cords, testes, and mouthparts.

Me and my lab partner, wearing masks, take a selfie with a crayfishOnce the dissection was finished, we clambered into knee-high boots. I got lucky, though, getting one of the two pairs of full-body waders. Professor Garvin taught us how to find riffle zones in the river. In these areas, fast-moving water rushes over shallow rocks, giving invertebrates plenty of oxygen and places to hide.

Equipped with gloves, boots, jars, and a net, my lab partner and I ventured into Plum Creek. I could feel the cold water rushing all around me, but still, I stayed completely dry. We set the net against the bottom of the creek and picked up rocks, rubbing their algae-covered surfaces so that any organisms that happened to make a home there would be washed by the current into our net. We found three-tailed mayfly larvae, triangle-headed flatworms, small black dragonfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae with bulging green abdomens, and – most excitingly – two native crayfish which had been perfectly camouflaged in the rocks. We cataloged the organisms, collected a few of the insects, and released the rest back into the creek.

Reflections from the Road

As I head home for Thanksgiving, I can’t help but think about what a strange term this has been. I’ve learned the best times to avoid crowds, spent a preposterous amount of time thinking about my Zoom background, and taken more walks than I knew it was possible to take. Still, I’m sure there is no place I would have rather been this fall. The people at Oberlin are deeply caring and unfailingly creative. That creativity has been put to good work this semester as we navigate ways to be together even as we stay apart. Sometimes that looks like Zoom dance parties, sometimes it looks like handwritten letters sitting outside your door, and sometimes it looks like dissection trays loaded lovingly into the back of a red pickup truck.

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