Finding a New Equilibrium, Chemistry Responds to the Pandemic

The SARS-COV-2 virus struck the United States early in 2020 and the threat posed by this pandemic convinced IU’s leadership to pivot to all virtual classes March 30 (after an extended spring break) and put all but the most essential on-campus research activities into hibernation until the June.  These parallel mandates required our faculty to become very creative in order to fulfill our teaching and research missions while keeping our people and equipment safe as the pandemic evolved.   

Even before President McRobbie’s announcements, our Teaching Faculty were preparing for the changes to instruction the move to online instruction would demand.  They worked tirelessly throughout the extended spring break both modifying their own class materials as well as assisting their colleagues who had never given an online class before do the same.  Lab classes had to be completely redesigned and virtual alternatives had to be created and/or assimilated.  We all had to learn how to use Zoom, Kaltura, Canvas, and Teams to the fullest of each of their capabilities.  Our faculty had to adapt assessment practices as in-person exams were no longer a possibility and each of the available virtual testing platforms had their own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.  It was a struggle; the adaptations exposed some weaknesses in long-held assumptions.  However, the process also revealed the strength and creativity of our educators and the resilience of their students.  65 Chemistry and Biochemistry earned their degrees in May with 6 more doing so in August.  The lessons learned in Spring of 2020 continue to inform our pedagogy moving forward.  Throughout the summer our faculty redesigned their courses to account for the new hybrid model IU was rolling out for fall 2020.  Lab classes have been redesigned to teach the most critical techniques and methods in laboratory spaces limited to one-third their former capacity.  Large lecture classes have been moved completely online and new models of teaching and interacting with students have been developed, tweaked, and adopted.  Each class and group of students have found unique ways to deal with the challenges.  It is truly humbling to observe the creativity of our faculty and the determination of our students during this pandemic. 

The research hibernation period from mid-March to June, 2020 brought the majority of laboratory research to a halt.  Waivers had to obtained for the most essential personnel in each research group to permit them access to campus to maintain equipment (glove boxes, liquid nitrogen storage dewars, and superconducting magnets) and conduct periodic examinations of chemical storage areas and other infrastructure.  Some research, especially that involving cell lines and animal models, could not be fully halted.  A handful of researchers had projects directly related to understanding and fighting COVID-19; two of those groups are highlighted in other sections of this issue.  The research process continued in different forms for the rest of us.  The pause allowed time for old data to be reexamined in closer detail while also giving space for new ideas to be proposed and explored.  Research group meetings went virtual and our graduate recruitment weekend pivoted from face-to-face to virtual with less than 3 weeks of preparation; 46 new graduate students agreed to join the department in the fall.  As senior administrators and government health officials plotted the over-arching framework for reopening our campus, individual research groups crafted their own restart plans.  Some groups had to reconfigure their layouts to allow students to work in a socially distant manner and at half capacity.  Most embraced multiple shifts to lower the number of researchers present at any one time.  Offices that held up to six graduate students were now limited to single or double occupancy.  All of us got very well acquainted with VPN and Zoom.  Shared resource facilities (NMR, mass spec, electron microscopy, stock room, etc.) all had to devise new procedures for safe access and create virtual training modules to minimize close contact.  Laboratory research was permitted to resume (with approved restart plans) on June 1, and the Chemistry Building came back to life.   

Moving forward, we continue to adapt to the new “normal” thrust upon us by our response to the risks of COVID-19.  As this article was being written, many research groups were revising their plans to using the lessons learned this summer to work safely at an even higher level of activity.  We continue to alter our approach to hosting effective discussion sections, lectures, and laboratory experiences incorporating best practices learned here at IU and from peer institutions.  We hope the Spring 2021 semester proceeds even more smoothly than Fall 2020 and look forward to the successes to come.