Going viral: Prof. Chandrangsu examines this critical moment of the pandemic

Across the CMC curriculum, members of our faculty are meeting the challenge of these unprecedented and historic times, delivering exceptional coursework in a fully online modality for the spring semester. In our Academic Innovations series of faculty Q&As, professors share their curricular highlights, best practices, and how students are helping to shape virtual learning for a memorable, collaborative academic experience.

Pete Chandrangsu, assistant professor of biology, is teaching “Microbiology” this spring.

Your "Microbiology" course feels particularly relevant for the spring semester given all that we’ve been through in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. What are you hoping to address or clarify about science—and how we interact with it—in the class?

We will definitely discuss all things viral—from how they replicate and cause disease to how they spread. We will also cover how our immune system prevents and battles infection, as well as the science behind vaccines. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is easy to forget that microbes are essential to life as we know it. For instance, the majority of the oxygen we breathe comes from microbes living in the ocean. If you like yogurt, wine, or kombucha, you have microbes to thank. Also, we are only beginning to understand the full contribution of microbial life to our planet. In my "Microbiology" course, we will explore the breadth of amazing bacteria, fungi, and viruses on our planet and the relationship, both good and bad, between microbes and humans.

How are you reimagining your class given the moment we’re living in, especially as it relates to the vaccine rollout?

We are at a critical point in our fight to end the pandemic. There are safe and effective vaccines and simple safety protocols that can stem the spread of the virus, but vaccines and masks do not work if people do not use them. With the race to stem the global pandemic though the use of health and safety orders and the rollout of a vaccine, we are seeing science at the forefront. There is a lot of data being presented in rapid succession to the public in media. Thus, now more than ever, science communication and literacy among the general public are more important than ever.

How can one distinguish between fact and opinion? What does it all mean and how can it shape policy? As an informed scientist, I hope that with increased understanding, one can hope that everyone will follow the guidelines or take the vaccine. How can one argue with a 95% effective vaccine? The data is the data, right? Yet, there are still those who are unconvinced.

Effective science communication is more than the data. It requires an empathetic approach and must come from a place of understanding. It is difficult, if not impossible, for scientists and physicians to communicate and educate without understanding the cultural, social, and emotional factors that contribute to an individual’s decision-making. To help students build these skills, I am collaborating with Jessie Mills, assistant professor of theater at Pomona College, to develop workshops and collaborative activities focused on empathy and public health. The hope is that students can translate the knowledge and experience gained from my course to become effective leaders once they leave CMC.

What is the citizen science project that the class is undertaking? What are you most excited for students to experience and understand in the spring?

The transition to online learning has given me an opportunity to reimagine how and what I teach, especially in the lab setting. This project actually arose from discussions I had with students in my research lab at the beginning of the pandemic. The human microbiome consists of the trillions of microbial cells that live on our bodies and in our gut. From the day we are born, these microbes directly impact our health, development, and behavior. The community composition of our microbiota is influenced by the microbes found in our environment. The pandemic has changed the way that we interact with each other and our surroundings.

For instance, with safer-at-home mandates, we have seen an increased reliance on online vendors and delivery services to obtain everyday goods. Thankfully, COVID-19 is spread primarily by aerosols and not by contact with solid surfaces! The goal of this project is to examine the microbes associated with packages that travel through the mail. If the microbes can be moved from one location to another through the mail, this can dramatically influence the diversity of microbes we are exposed to and affect our health and wellbeing. In pilot experiments run in my research lab this fall, we received samples from as far away as Europe! Students in my course will have an authentic research experience and will be intimately involved in data collection and analysis. They will learn about the latest in DNA sequencing technology and gain experience with big data sets.

What has struck you the most about living and teaching in a pandemic? How has it influenced your thinking with students?

Living through a pandemic is challenging! Inclusivity and engagement are the two main themes that arise in conversations with my amazing colleagues. With the move to distance learning, students are often faced with challenges that may not be encountered on campus, such as family and work obligations, poor internet, and time zone differences. How can I ensure that I am supporting students on their journey? How can I create a supportive learning community? With in-person teaching, for example, I miss the few minutes before or after class where I can chat and connect with my students. In the online environment, I am much more intentional about creating community and developing relationships by increasing office hours, setting up Slack channels for students to post social events or issues that are relevant to them, or by simply showing up five minutes early to class to chat.

Given what we’ve dealt with on the virus front, are you optimistic for the year ahead?

I am absolutely optimistic about 2021, especially given recent advances in the COVID vaccine and testing. We have been able to get a safe and effective vaccine from development, through clinical trials, and to the public in under a year! After teaching online during this past semester, I was constantly amazed at our students’ response and approach to the change. I was impressed with how they were able to adapt and engage even under less than ideal circumstances. In my discussions with students, I have heard over and over again that while this is not the college experience they were hoping for, they still felt connected with CMC. What gives me the most optimism for the academic year is being part of a community of CMC faculty, staff, and students working together to thrive under the most challenging of conditions.

—Thomas Rozwadowski