The pandemic sent shockwaves through the academic community. Some institutions are weathering the storm better than others. At Lewis University (LU), Professor Jason Keleher and his students, Carolyn Graverson, Abigail “Abby” Linhart, and Katie Wortman-Otto, are optimistic. In our series, The ECS Community Adapts and Advances, they share their COVID-19 experiences and hopes for the future.

Motivation matters

Newswise — Jason Keleher, Associate Professor and Chair of the LU Chemistry Department, describes what motivates him to meet the daunting changes confronting faculty. “I keep going because of my great group of students, colleagues, and collaborators. They inspire me every day to work at what is most interesting to the community in terms of solutions to globally pressing problems—whether it’s COVID-19, alternative energy, or waste treatment. Even if our only communication is digital, I appreciate that my team is committed to learning and knowledge in order to become accomplished scientists. I get a chance to be part of that journey.”

Not your usual year

Jason’s goal is to keep things as normal as possible. “I teach synchronously, getting online to lecture at 8:00 am. But now, I record my classes. Whether I’m home or in the office, I hold Thursday virtual office hours. Students can ‘drop by’ and visit, or ask questions via Zoom. I use a doc cam so they see my answers immediately. However, I understand that this is tough for some students. To get quiet, some do homework in their cars. Academics may string me up for this, but I don’t care about letter grades, tests, or quizzes. I care about the students who are inspired to keep learning when their minds can so easily wander.”

When Lewis shut down, a skeleton crew remained on campus to collect chem data for off-campus faculty to use in teaching. Abby Linhart, a second-year chemistry graduate student in the Keleher Research Group, described the new reality. “We can only use the lab to teach. We videotape each step of actual experiments. Then, I use Zoom during lab time to review the theory behind the experiment. Students review the experiment and write a report analyzing the data as if they collected it themselves. But there is no actual hands-on experience.”

After completing her BS at LU in spring 2020, Carolyn Graverson will pursue graduate studies in chemistry at Rice University this fall. “Although Lewis closed, I lived in a dorm and supported the chemistry department faculty—without students. Along with videotaping lectures and labs, I finished my senior project and sent papers out for publication. Having access to a lab helped me maintain a sense of normalcy and continuing progress.”

Katie Wortman-Otto completed her BA in chemistry at Lewis in 2018 and is now a grad student there. She looked forward to a summer of research and not having to TA. “It was lots of fun with everybody in the lab hanging out. With the pandemic, we still have fun, but we practice social distancing. We limit the number of people in the lab and can’t all meet in the same room. That’s challenging because collaborating when you’re running experiments is a big part of lab work.”

Carolyn played basketball at Lewis for four years. “There’s a give and take to college during COVID-19. Our season and post-season were cut short. It’s strange graduating from a sport and from school when nobody is around. I anticipated attending ceremonies and events with my lab and team mates. However, it feels like summer research, one of my favorite activities. In a normal academic year, I am so overscheduled that it’s impossible to accomplish everything I want to do. Now the world is taking a break so I can be very productive.”

Carolyn, Katie, and Abby took full advantage of Free the Science week during quarantine. Abby prepares ahead. “I tag the articles that interest me so I can access them quickly when the paywall comes down. Reading articles is the next best thing to hearing someone present. It’s awesome to have access to anything that we want!”

Shifting priorities

With experiments on hold, the Lewis community shifted priorities. “With more time to reflect, we have greater insight into some results, rather than jumping to the next experiment,” said Abby. “We’re writing a paper on a new trend we spotted in data from last summer.”

Before the pandemic, Carolyn isolated in her lab, physically engaged with her work. “Now, I’m becoming closer with my peers on campus, because we work together on so many different topics. It makes for a stronger professional community.”

Abby thinks grad students tie their identities to lab research. “But research isn’t just running experiments and getting results; it’s also communicating and disseminating results. Now we bring fresh eyes to our data and truly, deeply understand the science, instead of trying to win the race. Not being in the lab shouldn’t stop scientific progress.”

A caring community

To keep communication open, Jason uses everything—phone, email, Slack, Zoom, Twitter, OneNote, Drop Box, texting, blogs, whatever works. ”We opened the floodgates to ensure the students and team are well. We meet most nights and use Zoom for ‘team huddles,’ to discuss personal things.”

Katie watches for ‘radio silence,’ particularly with undergrads. “When there’s silence it’s usually because the student doesn’t know what to do or say. We all struggle with that sometimes. Whether I just pop in to say hi or discuss their projects (big or small), communicating really makes a difference in everyone’s lives.”

Sometimes, Carolyn stops hearing from her peers. “I worry and care about them, so I reach out to them. I want to see them succeed, and I want to succeed myself. So let’s all support each other.”

Flexibility is important. Jason told his students and team, “’If you can, be an active contributor. If your life is in flux, don’t panic.’ My goal is to support their continuing growth. We have fun brainstorming about projects to pursue when things return to normal.”

Happy scientists make good science

Having fun is key to coping. Jason drops dinner off to the folks on campus, then they dine together via Zoom. “This helps them not feel so isolated and alone.”

“I can’t let the world’s craziness affect my feelings,” says Abby. “Playing games and activities helps me de-stress so I can focus on my research. I enjoy lab work, talking about science, writing papers. When I focus, I find and learn more. A happy scientist leads to good results!”

Bursting into a bright future

Jason, Abby, Carolyn, and Katie look forward to the next in-person ECS meeting. Abby told us, “Since we can’t travel, we’re focusing on getting our articles published. Then we’ll come out in full force at the next ECS! I look forward to learning how science has evolved. It’s nice to go beyond the university and see the rest of the world.”

According to Carolyn, “What’s cool about ECS meetings is that it’s all about the science. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who’s presenting. Meeting participants always recognize quality and respect you for your work.”

“Talks at other conferences are very technical, centering on practical applications,” Katie shared. “Deep mechanistic discussions happen at ECS. Since all our members experienced the pandemic, I want to hear how they circumvented COVID and what they’re doing to move forward. I’m expecting deeper conversation and creativity that can help all our research.”

Parting words of inspiration

“It won’t be like this forever, so do what you can to put yourself in the best position possible to succeed when the world resumes. Whether that means taking care of yourself or building yourself professionally, now is the time to do it,” says Carolyn.

“The pandemic showed me that science can solve global problems and improve humanity. What we’re doing really matters,” answers Katie.

Jason exhorts the community to not shut down. “Keep talking and thinking about what it looks like now, what it will look in the future, and how, as some of the brightest minds in science, we come together to develop solutions from a technological perspective to some of the world’s greatest inequities. Innovating our current archaic education paradigm is only one part of the change.”