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Student Research in a COVID-19 World

Posted on: September 04, 2020 in Student Stories by Michael Mahi
Health and Safety Protocols Help Keep Labs Open For Students Science Research

It’s been an interesting start to the fall semester for chemistry student Ayat Garawi.

The senior takes several courses online because the pandemic has required Cal State Fullerton to offer the majority of its classes virtually this semester. The exceptions are some labs and other offerings that depend on access to machinery or technology only available on campus.

Garawi is on campus a couple of times a week working on research projects with a handful of other chemistry majors. Each is trying to stay healthy amid COVID-19, graduate and move on to either earning an advanced degree or working in the science industry.  

“It is a bit odd,” remarked Garawi, dressed in a white lab coat, face-covering and protective goggles. “I did not expect to finish my undergraduate program in this way, but we all have to adjust.”

a woman wearing safety googles, whote lab coat, face masks in a science lab
Senior Ayat Garawi taking notes on her research project in her chemistry lab. Photo by Matt Gush

Navigating Safety in the Lab

Her lab partners Jose Gonzalez Jimenez and Ryan Russell have their own take on the mostly virtual semester.

Gonzalez Jimenez, who hopes to earn a doctorate and conduct magnetism research one day, said being on a nearly empty campus is not new to him.

“I usually came here on weekends to study, and it’s much like this,” he explained.

Chemistry students Ryan Russell, left, and Jose Gonzalez Jimenez working on a project to help them better understand superconductors. Photo by Matt Gush.

Russell, who wants to jump into a research job after he graduates in May, likes that there is plenty of parking, but he struggles with the face mask and goggles.

“The mask funnels my breath into the goggles and I can’t see too well,” he said while helping his lab partner. “But other than that, the campus experience is the same for me. I go from one (online or virtual) class to the other.”

Building Community

Michael Groves, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is the instructor for the physical chemistry lab. The lab accommodates a limited number of students who are required to practice social distancing, wear personal protective equipment and follow university safety and health protocols.

He was one of the many faculty members last spring who had to pivot and deliver lessons online as the coronavirus started spreading throughout the country.

“The biggest thing I noticed was that losing the in-person component made it a lot more difficult to relate to people,” Groves shared. “Sitting on Zoom all day — that’s a challenge.”

Assistant professor Michael Groves works with students online while teaching an in-person chemistry lab. Photo by Matt Gush.

This fall, he said he is interacting with students in the lab, guiding them on their projects and is more hands-on in this virtual world. He also multitasks — helping students online work through problems, answering questions and mentoring.

“This semester I’m trying to let the students talk more,” he said. “I’m trying to get the students to engage with each other, and we’re building a community that way.”

He said he surveyed his students and asked them what they are most worried about this fall.

“A lot of them are concerned about working from home and not being able to focus,” he noted. “Just keeping up — that’s something that a lot of students are really stressed about.”

Before the campus went virtual, Groves and his students would work on a problem together in class. To build more engagement and community, he now gives each group a different question, and students work together to solve it and post the answer before the start of the next class.

“Little changes like that — I’m finding it’s working fairly well,” Groves said.

Photo by Matt Gush

For the Love of Science

Garawi, Gonzalez Jimenez and Russell all say that while the teaching methods have changed a bit, the reasons they want to be scientists and researchers remain the same.

“I’ve always had an affinity for chemistry and hands-on sciences where we’re looking into problems and trying to find solutions to them right now,” Russell explained.

Gonzalez Jimenez says his love of science comes from his mom, who made him memorize multiplication tables when he got in trouble. “I love discovering new things,” he smiled.

For Gawai, the answer is simple: “Science is fun.” 

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    Michael Mahi

    Michael Mahi is the Senior Director of Digital Media.

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