Clad in a white lab coat and safety glasses, Chloe deGraft-Johnson stood in the Villanova University chemistry lab last week, working with a rotary evaporator, rotovap for short.
It allowed the chemistry major from Stamford, Conn., to remove liquid from her bacteria sample.
“I don’t think I’d be able to do any of this in my house,” said deGraft-Johnson, 18, a rising sophomore. “I don’t have a rotovap at home.”
She is among 130 Villanova students back on campus for summer research for the first time since the coronavirus struck.
Many campuses, including Villanova, restricted undergraduate summer research last year when COVID-19 vaccines weren’t available. This summer, the labs at Villanova and other universities around the region are alive again with the sounds of students collaborating and learning.
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And although research officials said they made do last year with remote work for students, there’s nothing like being in the same room, learning from professors and each other.
”Chemistry is best done in person, shoulder to shoulder,” said Kevin Minbiole, chair of Villanova’s chemistry department.
With summer winding down, many colleges are planning for an almost normal fall, filling their dorms and scheduling classes in person, though it’s impossible to know what impact the delta variant will have. For now, student researchers are grabbing a little bit of normal while they can.
“It feels like pre-Covid,” said a smiling, maskless Cody Hogue, 21, a rising Villanova senior from Abington.
At Haverford College, a handful of students spent eight weeks inside the school’s “maker arts space,” designing colorful toys that also could be used as shade on a hot urban playground. They used a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and a robot that cuts wood to make their projects for local community organizations. One piece might end up at a park in Grays Ferry, said Kent Watson, the Haverford employee who oversaw the work.
Last year, when students couldn’t work in person, they created designs and emailed them to him. He printed them out in the maker space, then mailed them back to students in a box. Students reworked designs and did it all over again, he said.
“It worked,” he said, “but it was harder.”
Pennsylvania State University had few students on campus conducting research last year, and most were graduate students who had to follow strict COVID-19 safety protocols, said Lisa Powers, a university spokesperson. This year, there are many more, both undergraduate and graduate students, working across disciplines, she said.
At the word recognition and auditory perception lab at Villanova, Maeve Schumacher, 21, a rising senior from Chicago, is studying how people perceive road signs. She is trying to understand why a diamond-shaped yellow sign that says “share the road” has been misinterpreted by many. The sign is supposed to convey that cars need to share the road with bikes, she said.
“What I’m looking into is ... what aspects of the sign are going to get that perceptual meaning across in a time-sensitive fashion,” she said.
She brings Villanova students in as study subjects and gauges their perceptions.
“Being in person, for me, has really been a game changer,” she said.
A neuroscience major, she was unsure she wanted to take the research path. Her work this summer confirmed for her that she does, she said. It was the informal conversations with professors and student coresearchers that helped her reach that decision, she said.
In the chemistry lab, more than a half-dozen students, most without masks, worked on their projects, using sophisticated machinery.
All the students said they were vaccinated. Villanova is requiring students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated when they return for the fall semester.
“We’re still very cautious about it,” deGraft-Johnson said, noting that students don masks when they go to the stock room where an immunocompromised employee works.
The students are doing work for companies that professors have cultivated relationships with. They are paid a stipend and live on campus for free.
DeGraft-Johnson is working with a dermatology company, “focusing on using good skin bacteria to fight bad skin bacteria,” she said.
Alice Wu, a rising sophomore from Basking Ridge, N.J., is analyzing how the environment affects chemical compounds produced by amphibians. She is trying to understand how urban environments affect their habitations.
“These are samples,” she said, gripping a small vial. “I’m just putting them into methanol right now.”
Hogue and Samantha Brayton, 23, a graduate student from Shippensburg, were sitting at a table, typing their lab notes. They are working on creating new compounds that kill bacteria.
They said being in person in the lab allowed them to experience a work environment, get hands-on guidance from professors, and learn from each other.
“Whenever we have free time, we show each other what our instruments do,” said Lauren Amoo, 18, a rising sophomore from Silver Spring, Md. ”These are invaluable things, that I wouldn’t have learned without having them here.”
Access to lab equipment was key, too.
“There’s no way I could make these compounds over Zoom,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if I ordered random chemicals to my house, my mom would be upset.”