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— Education


A Q&A with James C. Nieh, PhD, professor of biological sciences, and graduate student Sumedha Ravishankar


  • Question

    How did your roles as teacher and student change during the pandemic?

    Answer:NIEH: Moving to fully remote education was challenging, especially during Spring Quarter 2020, when everyone was embarking on this experiment, and there were many aspects that we were unsure about. For many years, I have created video podcasts for my Animal Behavior course (BIEB 166). All notes, lectures slides, lecture readings and exercises were also available online. Thus, my biggest change was to only interact with students via Zoom and to give online exams.

    RAVISHANKAR: As PhD students, our lives revolve around our lab experiments. When the world went remote, I lost a core component of my livelihood. Unlike many of my friends, I couldn’t work from home in the same way they could. I couldn’t bring my bacteria or zebrafish home (that’s a MAJOR safety violation!). When we got the news that California was going into lockdown, I remember going into the lab for the last time to clean up and throw away bacterial cultures, effectively halting months of research. My role as a graduate student went from a full-time laboratory researcher to a work-from-home scientist. At first, I didn’t even really know what a work-from-home scientist looked like. I went from doing hours of infection research and imaging per day to zero. I used my time at home to read, write and do further analyses on my existing data. I was able to take a deep dive into the literature to get a better understanding of the state of the field, and how my work could further it. I was also able to write my thesis proposal and focus on developing a plan for the next four (or five or six) years of my PhD program. Instead of working on developing my research skills, I was able to hone my writing, public speaking and experimental design skills. Around June 2020, we were able to re-enter the lab and resume research part-time. Now, I try to ensure I make enough time for both in-person research and at-home reading and writing, as both are essential to being a successful scientist.

  • Question

    What were your biggest concerns at the beginning of the pandemic when the campus closed and education went remote?

    Answer:NIEH: I was not sure how the systems would handle the internet load of essentially all students in the United States going remote at the same time. There were concerns about our Canvas software crashing, and about the local networks at UC San Diego. I tried to prepare for this with multiple backups, mirroring all course materials and lectures onto separate cloud servers approved by the campus. However, this was only needed for a few days, and everything else went quite smoothly, a remarkable achievement for the campus and its hardworking staff. My second concern revolved around how the instructional assistants (IA) and I could provide equitable access for students in multiple, different time zones. How could we ensure that everyone could attend office hours and sections? We were fortunate to have several IAs and came up with a system to accommodate students who were at home across the globe.

    RAVISHANKAR: The severity of the pandemic became abundantly clear the day UC San Diego shut down. Thousands of students, myself included, were left uncertain about how they would graduate or continue with school, or when they’d next see their friends. My main concern was for my safety, and the safety of my peers. I was terrified to be around other people and out in public. But my anxiety over graduate school was constantly nagging at me. Would I still be on track to finish graduate school? What would happen to my research that was already in progress? So much of my scientific development comes from discussing science with others and learning from my colleagues. I work in an open lab space with five other labs, where collaboration occurs daily. This synergistic environment was gone, and I felt isolated. In terms of my education, I was primarily concerned with falling behind, losing the precious time I had to make discoveries in the lab, and missing out on working with my fellow graduate students. Remote learning can only go so far, especially when the majority of what I needed to do had to be in person.

Life lessons: Sumedha Ravishankar is a fourth-year PhD student studying bacterial infections that affect the nervous system.

“At the end of Spring Quarter 2020, we saw a huge increase in student stress as they grappled with the important issues brought up by the racial justice movements around the country.”

— James C. Nieh, PhD
  • Question

    How did your expectations of teaching and student performance change? Was the school year better, worse or about the same?

    Answer:NIEH: At the end of Spring Quarter 2020, we saw a huge increase in student stress as they grappled with the important issues brought up by the racial justice movements around the country. Because of the pandemic, my expectations had already shifted to focus more upon what students were able to achieve and learn, given the pandemic. I think the concept of advancement within opportunity, evaluating what individuals are able to achieve and thinking more broadly about what constitutes achievement, was very helpful. Essentially, having honest conversations with students about learning and grading is necessary. For example, like many other instructors, I adopted a “no fault” final exam policy in which students could raise their grades via the final, without penalizing them. I think that it will take time to better understand the impact on learning, but I hope that shifting the focus away from grades toward learning through opportunities gave students the breathing space they needed during this difficult time.

    RAVISHANKAR: UC San Diego shut down in March of 2020. I started my PhD program in September 2018, so I was just wrapping up my second year and my first year in my thesis lab. I was just getting ready to begin conducting research in earnest, after having found my bearings in the lab. I had pretty high expectations for the year, and was hoping to make significant progress in my research. However, after the school shut down, I was forced to take a step back from lab work. I had no idea what the timetable for our return to the lab would be, and watching the cases exponentially increase, it seemed like we were in the pandemic for the long haul. Around this time, there was a resurgence of civil rights advocacy and awareness, galvanized by the brutal murder of George Floyd. Re-energized, I shifted my focus to science outreach and co-founded an organization that is geared toward increasing underrepresented minority retention in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and creating a safe community for our minority students. Along with my fellow graduate student, Tara Spencer, and biological sciences faculty member Dr. Sonya Neal, we co-founded the Biology Undergraduate and Master’s Mentorship Program (BUMMP). Our primary aim is to ensure that our undergraduate and master’s students at UC San Diego, who are underrepresented in science, are reminded that they belong in STEM by providing them with a scientific mentor and funding to do research. I am so thankful for the amazing work we’ve been able to accomplish with BUMMP. We have raised more than $150,000 to award scholarships for our undergraduate and master’s students. This year ended up being far more successful than I had anticipated when the pandemic began.

“The following Monday, UC San Diego went into lockdown and our labs shut down. I will never forget the pure confusion, fear and hopelessness that I felt. A little over a year later, we’ve made it through, but that moment still feels fresh.”

— Sumedha Ravishankar
  • Question

    What would you do differently if you had to do 2020 all over again?

    Answer:NIEH: think I would have taken a more relaxed approach. I wanted everything to work out and so we spent a lot of time and energy creating backups and worrying about online exams and how to ensure that students could learn and perform in the same way as they did in person. In retrospect, this was not a realistic expectation. Given the pandemic and the racial reckoning, it now seems that I should have relaxed a bit and dedicated that extra time and energy to conversations with students, including how events outside of the classroom were affecting their lives. The mantra “keep calm and carry on” perhaps should have shifted to “keep calm and carry on, but recognize that that this is a very difficult time and the same expectations cannot not apply.”

  • Question

    Was there any particular moment/ conversation/ event from the pandemic that you think will stick in your mind forever?

    Answer:NIEH: For me, there was no striking moment. But I will always remember the first few weeks of class when everyone was still adjusting to this new Zoom world. There were a lot of blank screens in the beginning and reluctance to talk. Students mainly texted questions. But in the third to fourth week, this began to break down and students actually showed their videos and asked questions in person: a wonderful small step forward!

    RAVISHANKAR: The week before we went into lockdown, my lab mate and I were talking about all the news articles that were circulating about a flu-like infection that was taking over China. There was so much information that we really didn’t know what to believe. We were in our lunchroom, eating and chatting, talking about how we thought people were overreacting and that it was just like the flu: no big deal. The next night, we were with a few friends for our weekly The Bachelor (the TV show) viewing night. We suddenly got a notification that the NBA was stopping its season. That’s when we realized that we were about to live through a historic event. The following Monday, UC San Diego went into lockdown and our labs shut down. I will never forget the pure confusion, fear and hopelessness that I felt. A little over a year later, we’ve made it through, but that moment still feels fresh.

  • Question

    What changes do you hope will continue beyond the pandemic?

    Answer:NIEH: Multiple aspects of remote learning are here to stay. I think that many more instructors will now feel more comfortable about video podcasting, putting their lecture materials online and generally increasing access. There are small but significant changes that will help students. For example, several students have told me that automatic, closed captioning of video-recorded lectures was very helpful. I hope that most instructors will adopt this for the future. Open-book exams and writing tests that evaluate knowledge, not only memorization, are also important legacies of the pandemic.

    RAVISHANKAR: This year was tough for so many, with countless lives lost and a lack of much-needed human interaction. Despite that, there were positives to come out of the pandemic that I hope we continue to see in the future. There was an emphasis on mental health for graduate students this year, and I hope we continue to prioritize our well-being above our daily grind. Additionally, having meetings on Zoom allowed me to attend more seminars than I would have before the pandemic. Scientists from all over the world were able to give talks that anyone could join. I hope we continue to use Zoom as a platform for various meetings and conferences to encourage greater attendance. Finally, I hope we all continue to wash our hands and practice clean habits! I haven’t gotten sick in over a year, so I hope we maintain this level of mindfulness.

Proof is in the pooping: