By Way of Biophysics

“The literature was just pouring out, and it was all fresh,” says Professor of Physics William Loinaz of the rush of new studies of COVID-19 this spring. “Here we had a new subject where we didn’t know anything about it, but it did fall in our domain of biochemistry and biophysics.”

Professors Jaswal and Loinaz

William Loinaz and Sheila Jaswal. Photos by Ben Barnhart.

And so Loinaz and Sheila Jaswal, associate professor of chemistry, decided to channel that fresh literature toward the final unit of their 19-student capstone course “Molecular and Cellular Biophysics.”  

In one class meeting, for instance, they focused on a recent paper breaking down the mechanics of the virus, and invited its co-author Rob Phillips, professor in bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, in for a Zoom talk. He was joined by Amy Kistler and Josh Batson, members of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub COVID-19 research team.

“It felt like it mattered,” says Donna Roscoe ’21, of parsing COVID-19 studies and hearing these expert voices.  “Once your whole world is uprooted, it’s kind of nice to at least have an excuse to focus on it.”

Early on in the unit, students broke up into groups and, via teleconferencing, discussed how a viral infection works and the psychology of living through a pandemic. 

For their final projects, students worked on ways to teach others about COVID-19—including future students in the course. Some wrote letters to their families and others they felt might need to hear the hard science.

two illustrations by Amila Semic showing the coronavirus and their protens, and the main protease potential inhibitor binding pockets

Class member Amila Semic ’20 illustrated aspects of the COVID-19 virus and the main protease. See larger image.

“Through conversations with scientists on the front lines, immersion through primary literature, and the solitude of quarantine, I have begun to realize that the best knowledge to arm ourselves is an intimate understanding of the numbers that are driving this virus,” Chris Daveiga ’20 says in his letter.

Other students described the virus and its impact through poetry and art. Amanda Lopez ’20 hosted a Zoom meeting for friends, outlining what scientists currently know about the virus. Ava Simoncelli ’20 shot a video (below) of her family and friends in masks, superimposed with facts about the virus, such as this: COVID-19 has a lower mutation rate than the common flu, “which means a possible longer period of effectiveness for vaccines/treatments.”

Roscoe, in addition to her final project, prepared a Google Doc of helpful links, dubbed the “Amherst College Biophysicist-Approved Collection of Coronavirus Information,” or ACBACCI—pronounced “Ack-Back-Eee,” an appropriate verbal response to the virus, she says.

“One of the worst parts of this pandemic is the lack of concrete knowledge regarding the virus,” Roscoe says. “It’s best to learn things straight from the scientists and scientific articles themselves.”

Aditi Nayak ’23, not a student in the class, says she is publishing some of the students projects in the Amherst STEM Network, a student-run online magazine that highlights Amherst achievements in science.

Each project plays off the goal of the course itself. Its “core function is about evaluating the scientific literature: reading it, dissecting it, putting it together in different ways,” says Loinaz. 

And though it’s a situation that no one asked for or wants, coming to terms with COVID-19 has put the class to good use, Jaswal says:  “We’re not giving you answers. It’s no longer a pre-digested textbook for you. If some questions are kind of confusing? That’s real life.”

—Bill Sweet

Facts About COVID-19

by Ava Simoncelli ’20

For her “Molecular and Cellular Biophysics” project video, Simoncelli shows pictures of her family and friends in masks, superimposed with facts about the virus, such as that COVID-19 has a lower mutation rate than that of the common flu.

As Per Philosophy 

“Before COVID-19 started, I looked at this philosophy seminar as a course that had readings founded in extreme hypotheticals,” says Kayla Hall ’20.

But as the pandemic hit, the readings in “Just Human Health” seemed all too real. Adds Hall: “I found myself wondering what we as a society need to do when this ‘extreme hypothetical’ is now our everyday life.”

Professor Jyl Gentzler teaching class

Jyl Gentzler in class in 2017. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

According to Jyl Gentzler, the R. John Cooper ’64 Presidential Teaching Professor of Philosophy, the seminar was already about how contemporary theories of justice can shed light on U.S. health disparities. So, starting in March, she says she “bombarded” her students with articles on the disparate effects of COVID-19 on various populations.  

African-American and Latinx populations have suffered disproportionately, she notes, as have populations with limited economic resources. “This news wasn’t at all surprising to my class, because we had examined many other ways in which structural injustices have led certain populations to suffer additional injustices in the form of health inequities.” 

Zoom class conversations now always involve an anecdote about students’ personal lives “and how we find our current healthcare system failing different segments of the U.S. population,” says Hall, a neuroscience major. “We all take our work and the content into consideration much more than we thought we would, because of how we see the pandemic impacting us all differently.”

But Gentzler didn’t want the seminar to become all COVID, all the time. She didn’t change the required readings—by philosophers such as David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Iris Marion Young and Marion Hourdequin—nor the writing assignments, which included frequent short papers and one long, interdisciplinary research paper. 

“It was important to me that the students continued to grapple with the philosophical discussions of justice, so that they could apply these difficult ideas to any social phenomenon they were interested in,” the professor says. Hall, for instance, chose to focus her research project on disparities in access to preventative and long-term health care for Type 2 diabetes, as faced by Hispanic and white women of different socioeconomic statuses in Chicago.

Looking ahead, Gentzler says, “My hope is that the students will continue to think about (and even return to) our readings about the nature of justice to think about how we, as a species, want to emerge from this pandemic once the crisis is over.”

—Katherine Duke ’05

Through Teamwork (in Biology 191)

“Is the novel coronavirus outbreak in China becoming a global pandemic?”

Back in January, the 75 students in “Molecules, Genes and Cells” were given this research question during their very first Team-Based Learning (TBL) session of the semester. “At that time, coronavirus was just a new topic in the news,” says Tavus Atajanova ’23, “but scientists around the world were already gathering to collaborate on finding a solution to this emerging problem.”

Julia Emerson, Jeeyon Jeong, Thea Kristensen, Katerina Ragkousi

(L to r) Julia Emerson, Jeeyon Jeong, Thea Kristensen and Katerina Ragkousi. Photos by Maria Stenzel and Ben Barnhart.

Indeed, Lab Coordinator Julia Emerson included this question partly because it provided a real-world example of the necessity and effectiveness of working in teams to tackle global issues. Students were asked to brainstorm as many answers as possible to the research question, and its follow-up prompts: What do we know about the virus? What do we still need to understand? Who is able to figure this out, and how will they do it? What can be done to limit new infections?

Tavus Atajanova, Ali Khoddam, Karen Liu, Esther Min, Yosen Wang

Read students’ reflections on the question, “Is the novel coronavirus outbreak in China becoming a global pandemic?”

TBL is a collaborative teaching/learning strategy based on preparation, testing, team exercises and frequent feedback from faculty. Emerson became interested in it during a 2009 biology education conference, which ultimately led to Amherst’s pilot TBL class in 2011.

By 2014 all sessions of Biology 191 had incorporated team-based learning. 

Biology 191 is team-taught by Professors Jeeyon Jeong and Katerina Ragkousi, along with Lab Coordinators Thea Kristensen and Julia Emerson. Most of the time, their students studied non-COVID issues. But as they learned about subjects like RNA and cytokine storms (which happen when the body attacks its own cells and tissues), it was hard not to think of COVID. “This direct connection between classroom learning and the reality of the situation surrounding us was somewhat jolting at first,” says Yosen Wang ’22. 

It was also jolting, at first, for the students to adjust to TBL. Each week, they’d be given a new topic and their instinct was to ask the professors for answers, but the professors would invariably ask what they thought. “That’s where the real team learning happened,” says Ali Khoddam ’23. “Each of us had an idea, and each idea contributed to our final guess of our answer.”

At the semester’s end, some students reflected on the prescient nature of that first research question. Adds Khoddam: “Today, we have a lot of questions about the coronavirus and not a lot of answers. It’s the not-knowing part that makes our tiny section of TBL similar to this global pandemic. And I’m so proud that my peers and I at Amherst are one day going to be the ones facing the unknown.”

— Roberta Diehl

By Means of Macroeconomics

It’s the fall of 2008, and the economy is wheels-off. Neil White is a senior at Princeton, an econ major, and all his econ classes bear out this frightful truth: No expert, on campus or in the larger world, understands what has caused the crisis.

“Everybody threw their hands up and said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on,’” recalls White, who is now an assistant professor of economics at Amherst. It took a while for “the dismal science” to nail down the origins of the Great Recession, he adds, and a much longer while for the Great Depression. 

“What’s different now is we know exactly why this downturn is happening,” he says. “There’s no mystery—and that’s a new thing.”

In his “Macroeconomics” class, 35 students had been studying, among other topics, historical economic shocks to the system. Then, when COVID-19 hit the United States, White pivoted fast. Students didn’t need to look back; they needed to look forward. And so they worked through possible economic scenarios for our evolving world.

It was a matter of sifting hot-off-the-presses data. (Every student I spoke with knew that the U.S. Jobs Report is released the first Friday of every month at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time.) Then they plugged that data into the formulas and tools they’d already learned to use to understand how capital and the labor markets interact. 

For the March 5 midterm, while the students were still physically on campus, White threw in one last question: “Suppose that a worldwide pandemic causes workers to want to stay home and work less to avoid infection. State which exogenous variable this changes and illustrate the effects of this change on the labor and capital markets.…” Students created graphs with such variables as equilibrium wage, rental rate, labor and capital stock.  

“To read the headlines, then read papers in class, has been really, really telling,” says Sophia Harrison ’22. “It’s been so informative to live through the crisis and also apply these models to our lives.”


Neil White and Jake Blackwood

Neil White and Jake Blackwood

White also teamed up with Jake Blackwood, assistant professor of economics, who teaches “Advanced Macroeconomics.” The pair pre-recorded their conversation, which covered multiple stressors in the current economy, and shared it with both classes.

For an April 9 exam, taken remotely, White asked students to compare the economic fallout from COVID-19 and Hurricane Katrina. Unemployment in New Orleans before the 2005 flood was roughly 6 percent, then jumped to 15 percent post-flood, and six months later it ebbed back to 6 percent. Would this trajectory apply to the U.S. in six months too?

“Applying basic models has been assuring, even calming,” says Pedro Sanchez ’22. “You see there’s a one-time unemployment spike. When people go back to work, those numbers fall in a much more rapid way than in a standard financial crisis.”

In other words: These students calculate they’ll enter a job landscape less beset than their professor’s was when he was their age. As this unprecedented semester comes to a close, that's a heartening scenario.

— Katharine Whittemore