When the Pandemic Struck, This Class Struck Back

A chemistry professor and his students scrap the lesson plan to study COVID-19
Sara Rudolph, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Tufts, sits at a counter with her laptop. Her Medicinal Chemistry class changed direction to study COVID-19 and managed to share findings while shifting to a distance-learning format.
Sara Rudolph, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, said she appreciated being in a course that could switch focus and stay relevant. Photo: Courtesy Sara Rudolph
May 12, 2020

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Krishna Kumar, Robinson Professor of Chemistry, vividly remembers Monday, February 3. That’s the day that a disease soon to be known as COVID-19 first became a topic of discussion in his Medicinal Chemistry class. While the “novel coronavirus” wasn’t yet dominating the headlines, local news media had just reported that a University of Massachusetts student, recently returned from Wuhan, China, had tested positive.

By sheer coincidence, Kumar’s lecture that day focused on the formidable viral diseases AIDS, SARS, and MERS, and discussion turned to the new virus.

“The students were very interested in this emerging situation,” said Kumar. “Some had family members in lockdown in Beijing and Shanghai. Within a couple of weeks, it was clear that we were all facing something completely unprecedented.”

Over the rest of the semester, the class of twenty-six junior and seniors and eight graduate students successfully changed direction to study COVID-19. They also found a way to come together, learn from each other, and share their findings even as they, like all Tufts classes, made the move to distance learning in late March.The students “dug deep and came up with ideas that were not even in the mainstream discussion,” said Krishna Kumar, Robinson Professor of Chemistry.

Kumar had never taught remotely, but drawing on university models and technology resources, department and school meetings, and informal discussions with colleagues, he found techniques that worked best for him to deliver his twice-weekly lectures via Zoom.

Kumar incorporated the unfolding pandemic into classes and reading; the last two lectures focused exclusively to COVID-19. Although his students were now living in different time zones, all were able to join at the regularly scheduled time.

“We had 100 percent attendance,” he said.

Kumar asked the class to vote on replacing a planned test with a COVID-specific project. “Within 10 seconds, every student raised their hand” in agreement, said Kumar. Each student wrote a paper summarizing major published findings about a therapy being considered to prevent or treat COVID-19. Assignment time: just four working days.

“I am proud of what students were able to accomplish. Some of them are looking at their papers as living documents and continuing to add to them,” said Kumar. “In class, they dug deep and came up with ideas that were not even in the mainstream discussion. They really broadened their approach, reading widely, not just scientific sources but public policy and public health.”

Sara Rudolph, in the first year of a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering, said she appreciated being in a course that could switch focus and stay relevant. Her paper, which she wrote after moving back in with her family and two cats in Needham, Mass., looked at stopping the SARS-CoV-2 virus from binding to cell receptors by inhibiting a type of enzyme called a protease.

Since then, she has been following the news and looking for updates on new treatments for COVID-19. “We might even use some of my course research on the protease inhibitor within our research group,” she said.

The course played out against a backdrop that Kumar describes as once in a millennium. “Never before has half of humankind been in quarantine,” he said. “A 92-year old colleague at another institution told me World War II didn’t feel like this, and 9/11 didn’t feel like this, because then you could gain some solace by being with family and friends. That is the aspect that is so difficult.”

For biology major Claire Dunn, A20, home is the Netherlands. She considered moving back but felt that might be more disruptive than staying in the Somerville, Mass., apartment she shares with friends.

She found that studying SARS CoV-2 and COVID-19 helped in unexpected ways. “Everything felt very panicky,” said Dunn. “No one knew what an end to the pandemic might be or how we would get there. Understanding the science and the next steps was very nice. It helped calm my fears. I’m happy we didn’t just carry on with the regularly planned course, that we didn’t stick our heads down and say, well, we have to stick to XYZ. I’m really thankful I was taking this course at this time.”

Kim Thurler can be reached at kim.thurler@tufts.edu.