With the semester coming to a close, we asked some students in BIOL 191 to reflect back on that early team-based research question they were given: Is the novel coronavirus outbreak in China becoming a global pandemic?

Given initially as a prompt to illustrate the value and power of team-based work, this sample research question took on a larger significance when the College transitioned to remote learning. What was it like to reach the end of the semester and reflect back on that early research question? 


 

Tavus Atajanova ’23

Tavus Atajanova Our very first Team-Based Learning session in Biology, everyone was nervously sitting around the table and smiling at each other, trying to properly introduce themselves and become familiarized with the people that we would work closely with for the entire semester. At that time, coronavirus was just a new topic in the news, but scientists around the world were already gathering to collaborate on finding a solution to this emerging problem. Only with collaboration and communication could a solution be found. I thought this was a perfect example of the importance of teamwork in our Team-Based Learning sessions and beyond. Teamwork is an opportunity to bring a diverse range of ideas and skills and apply them towards achieving a common goal.

After leaving campus and transitioning to remote learning, I wondered how this type of teamwork could continue when we were strictly advised to socially distance from each other; it seemed like individualism was promoted rather than teamwork. But our professors, including Professor Jeong and Professor Ragkousi, quickly found new ways to help us adapt to our circumstances and implement the same sense of community and collaboration into our online Team-Based Learning sessions. We were assigned a group of students to work with every week on a new packet of quizzes and practice problems that were related to each week's lecture. I will be honest- it was a bit awkward video chatting with students whom I barely knew at the time, rummaging for topics to maintain small talk that could fill in the awkward silences that occurred during our sessions. But we all had the common goal of understanding the given materials and working through the problem sets to find the correct answers. This common goal and our love of Biology was the glue that stuck us together and helped us gradually get to know each other.

After a few sessions, I started feeling the same sense of community and collaboration that I had felt during the Team-Based Learning sessions at Amherst. During most sessions, our group decided that it was best to read aloud the texts and the problems and simply take turns contributing our thoughts to what the correct answer may be. Despite the physical distance between us, we maintained respect and open communication to effectively collaborate on working through and finishing our assignments. I think this was the "aha" moment where I genuinely understood the power of teamwork. We were applying the same skills to our assignments in our Team-Based Learning sessions that researchers around the world were applying to their search for a coronavirus vaccine. Especially in times like our current reality, I realized that communication and collaboration are of utmost importance to achieving a common goal. No matter the physical distance that isolates us, we can turn to others to share our ideas and start a conversation that will lead to an ongoing sense of community and teamwork.

Isabelle Kim ’23

If the corona virus did one thing at Amherst, it was that it separated us from each other. It strengthened the metaphorical walls between us and put physical distance between us when we were all sent home. It made it easy to lose contact with our friends, to slip away from the careful attention of our professors. Although sometimes tedious, TBL was a regular block of time that I could rely on to see my classmates. The situation seemed just a little more normal when the four of us were working together on a biology packet. Knowing that the coronavirus was lurking right around the corner but still putting in effort to learn was empowering to me because this situation has made us all feel so helpless.

Ali Khoddam ’23

Ali Khoddam In team based learning the goal was to work together to finish a worksheet. I have no clue how the instructors matched us five team members together (probably a random number generator), but the goal of our group went beyond the task of answering all the questions in a packet. Each week, we had some new topic to be curious about. And when we found ourselves facing the unknown, we would call either Professor Jeong or Ragkousi (depending on the week) over and ask her our question. And almost all the time, we’d hear “I don’t know.” But a “what do you think happens?” always followed the initial response. That’s where the real team learning happened: when our questions were so far away from our professor’s area of research. The professors would pull a chair next to our table and we’d get to thinking. The professors, who have been published in scientific journals, sure did illuminate the process of reasoning out a possible answer to our question. Each of us had an idea, and each idea contributed our final guess of our answer.

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. The other similarity is that there are brilliant scientists who are willing to take a stab at answering those questions. And I’m so proud that my peers and I at Amherst are one day going to be the ones facing the unknown.

Karen Liu ’23

Karen Liu During the discussion section where the professors used COVID-19 as an example of the importance of teamwork, I didn’t think too hard about it. It seemed incredibly straightforward to me, and I felt optimistic that a whole global network of science would be able to solve this problem even though the news was already beginning to characterize the epidemic (not sure if the WHO, at the time, had labelled it as a pandemic yet) as a disaster that no one would be able to anticipate.

Recently, though, in my History of Western Medicine class (HIST-212), we did a lot of reading and a paper on the beginning of the American portion of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and I learned that the global scientific community was incredibly ill-prepared to confront the situation. HIV produced a disease that was difficult to track because of how long it took for symptoms to show, and a whole slew of confounding variables made scientists doubt one another, compete with one another, and flout cooperative efforts. In that regard, I’ve felt that this current virus is similar; the symptoms are variable, the severity even more so, and, so, I had this moment of fear some weeks ago that the teamwork my professors talked about in TBL (Team-Based Learning) was just a platonic conception of the “scientist.” Yes, they do incredibly well to break new boundaries when they’re not under pressure, but what if they are under pressure, like during the 80s and now? It made me wonder if the scientific response to this pandemic could be different from the response to AIDS because everyone wants answers, but it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be any tension regarding who actually has an answer.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a few news articles—the most promising ones yet—about how a group of researchers at Oxford are already done with a round of (successful) clinical trials for a potential vaccine. As I was reading them, I saw references to China, the U.S., and a few other countries, and I had this moment of fear where I couldn’t help but wonder about what’s actually going on behind the scenes—whether there’d be another book like Randy Shilts’ book exposing the failures behind the response to AIDS, exposing all the petty competitions and delays and research politics, but this time, instead of AIDS, it’s COVID-19. I had these intrusive doubts in my head: what if the Oxford team isn’t the fastest, but their news is just “louder” than other countries’ input? Do scientists actually prioritize the teamwork that they should be prioritizing? When did life become a secondary concern to politics?

This is a really long-winded way to get to the point of what I wanted to express, but, essentially, I initially found my professors’ comments on teamwork to be positive and obvious, a useful and applicable comparison to the reality at the time. But now that the virus has become more terrifying within the U.S. than many initially predicted, this need for teamwork is more pressing than ever, especially since research has been underway for at least several months by now. I never doubted that teamwork, collaboration, and communication between groups of scientists would be necessary, but I’ve since had a revelation—after my history class’s AIDS unit and after reading those articles about the Oxford vaccine—that though we unconsciously see scientists as trustworthy, enlightened authorities, scientists are human and thus fallible, possibly given to self-serving tendencies just like any other person in the world. And these proclivities can damage the cooperation that is needed for a breakthrough against this virus. Quite possibly, every single scientific discovery that is laid out in our textbooks, straightforward and simple, may have also been subjected to this kind of human tension. The Nobel Prize itself has indubitably snubbed many great scientists of their proper credit (as it sort of did for AIDS) because it recognizes individuals rather than teams. I wonder whether my biology professors’ declaration that teamwork is the core of discovery is a reflection of smooth teamwork that has existed in scientific history, or of scraps of cooperation scrambled together in the wake of damages incurred by selfish motives and individual gain, whether that individual be an institution or a country. I sincerely hope that this isn’t the case. Already, the hasty reports (hydroxychloroquine and such) are differentiating COVID-19 from the anxiety-inducing, excessive caution behind AIDS. But that might just be a different form of failed teamwork.

Esther Min ’23

Esther Min During the introduction to the first Team-Based Learning (TBL) session of BIO-191, the professors shared a PowerPoint about the value of learning to work in teams. They discussed how TBL sections will give students the opportunity to learn about new topics, apply materials covered in lecture, and extend prior knowledge. Most importantly, the primary purpose of these sections was to enhance the experience of working together in a group of other students. Interestingly, this intention was and is still apparent in today’s situation caused by the pandemic of the coronavirus. 

When Amherst announced that courses were completely switching to remote learning and students were expected to leave campus, nearly everyone was struck with confusion. Students were struggling with how to deal with course expectations in the midst of the commotion which involved packing, moving out, and traveling. In particular, students in BIO-191 faced uneasiness because they had a midterm that was scheduled to be taken before Spring Break. Fortunately, this concern was addressed by professors who worked together in order to develop ways to relieve stress from students during such an unprecedented situation. Students were given the generous option to take the exam on the original day, switch to another day, or engage in another possible solution if their situation did not permit the prior choices. As much as it was difficult for professors to adapt to a demanding change, they continued to support each student by accommodating their needs in every way possible. Not only were the professors working together to adapt to this change, but they were also working with students to overcome an unforeseen circumstance as one team part of Amherst College.

Reflecting back on what happened on campus, the situation could not have been properly controlled if everyone did cooperate with one another. If the professors did not communicate amongst themselves, students would not have been given the opportunity to handle personal issues as well academic expectations of the course. Furthermore, if the professors did not work with the students, the whole situation of dealing with the unexpected transition at Amherst would not have been possible. This all relates to the importance of working as a team - whether it is working together to adapt to the pandemic or even researching ways to cure the pandemic itself.

Yosen Wang ’22

Yosen Wang In a recent lecture, Professor Jeong presented a real-life application of the cell signaling that we were studying. Cytokine, a type of signal molecule, is typically involved in enzyme-coupled receptors as part of the immune system. However, overproduction of proinflammatory cytokine can result in a "cytokine storm", in which the body attacks its own cells and tissues. Cytokine storms have been associated with many cases of severe COVID-19. Consequently, clinical trials for cytokine blockers are underway. This direct connection between classroom learning and the reality of the situation surrounding us was somewhat jolting at first. At the same time, I appreciated the insight into understanding what was causing the pandemic and potential solutions being actively pursued.