Albion Students Chronicle Pandemic’s Effects on Undergraduate Biochemistry Research Nationwide

September 28, 2020

By Jake Weber

The 2020 Streu Research Group, back together safely on campus: (from left to right) biochemistry and music major San Pham, ’21; biochemistry major Anna Crysler, ’22; biochemistry major Peter Filbrandt, ’23; biochemistry major Kaitlyn Piontkowsky, ’23.

Like most of his peers nationwide, associate professor of biochemistry Craig Streu faced a problem at the beginning of the summer: How would he direct meaningful research with students who weren’t allowed to be on campus, much less spend several hundred hours in his lab?

Not only did Streu answer this question for Albion, he and his students took on the additional project of researching how institutions across the country did the same. The results of this additional project were featured in a recent edition of ASBMB Today, the journal of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“We all were super pumped for the opportunity to be co-authors,” said Kaitlyn Piontkowsky, ’23. “The group of us who wrote this article all have hopes of going to either a graduate program or medical school, and this is going to look great on all of our résumés.”

She added that they are hopeful their biochemical research will lead to publishing opportunities in the future. And so, “This article was a good test run, so when the time comes for our projects, we’ll have a better understanding of the process.”

Via a survey sent to ASBMB members, the Albion group gathered information from students and faculty from San Diego to Boston, discussing the challenges, workarounds and unexpected benefits that were part of undergraduate summer research in 2020.

Streu’s students reported that many of their nationwide peers were shifting their learning from focused, hands-on lab work to studying the work done by other researchers offering “bigger picture” understanding of their fields of interest. Many students also reported using their research time to gain more expertise with the complicated software programs used to operate equipment and analyze data. The time-consuming aspect of lab work often means that students know only the software that directly impacts their lab work, but the quarantine may have helped produce more students who know more about these operations.

“I really enjoyed hearing about what other undergraduate students are working on across the country,” noted Anna Crysler, ’22. “These are people in the same period of life as me, with similar goals, and it was inspiring to hear what they were working on.”

Streu, a 2004 Albion alumnus, explained that the project was also a way to give his students some of the collaborative feeling that comes with spending the summer together. “Normally I can reward hard work and break up the long hours in the lab with group activities and fun,” Streu explains. “Research is slow and there is not much immediate gratification. This article gave the students a chance to see a tangible product from their efforts.”

“All my work previously had been in the lab,” said Piontkowsky, who instead spent the summer “learning to computer-code, as well as reading research papers that helped me deepen the understanding of my project. Overall I really think this summer helped me learn how to be flexible, and deepen my knowledge of my project,” she concludes.

“Someone mentioned how she was grateful to spend additional time with her family that wouldn’t have been possible if not for the pandemic,” Crysler recalled. “This made me reflect on my own situation and come to appreciate some of the positive things that arose from COVID-19 adaptations (since I also was able to spend valuable time with my family).”

Read the Albion students’ ASBMB article