Science built in ‘real time:’ SUNY Cobleskill biotech program using pandemic as crucial reference point

This provided photo shows SUNY Cobleskill students in an organic chemistry lab. From left are Allyson Reilly and Megan Brewer. Provided

This provided photo shows SUNY Cobleskill students in an organic chemistry lab. From left are Allyson Reilly and Megan Brewer. Provided

Last year, as the threat of COVID-19 became clear, SUNY Cobleskill professor Barbara Brabetz knew she had to make some changes to her biochemistry class.

“I was planning on having my students each adopt a protein, biochemically,” Brabetz said. “They talk about the genetics of it, physiology of it, the protein structure and then how therapeutics can target that protein structure. But I saw that this was an experience for everyone to see science built in real time and at superspeed.”

Brabetz asked her students to use Nextstrain.org to instead investigate COVID-19 and the major proteins that cause the coronavirus, researching how those proteins interact with human cells and each other.

“All of my assignments got thrown out,” Brabetz said. “Everything we did was still under the same concept, learning outcomes, but under the frame of coronavirus.”

While the pandemic altered the curriculum of the upper-level biochemistry course at Cobleskill — which is meant for students heading into the biotech industry, veterinary medicine or medical school — it also impacted other courses within the program, including immunology. Now a year after these initial course updates, both Brabetz and Natural Sciences & Mathematics Chair Dr. Illona Gillette-Ferguson has seen how incorporating the coronavirus into these classes has helped students learn. And they plan to continue keeping students engaged as they use real-time experiences to teach the abstract.

“The courses would have been simpler to teach without the frame of coronavirus, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encourage students to watch science evolve,” Brabetz said. “It is an exercise that stimulates students to become more invested and engaged in the material. It gives a better feel of what research scientists experience and also preps them for a scientific future where COVID will still remain a topic of study. Mutations in viruses are common and early on our students used shared data to map mutations, their origins, and frequency.”

The focus on “emerging science” rather than dated information has proved to be useful, Brabetz said.

“It continues to be relevant, engaging and captivating to students (faculty included) to focus their energies on emerging science rather than the canned materials one may find on a webpage, textbook or even the scientific literature from a decade or more ago. This is a sudoku that students are trying to solve as the puzzle is still being built. We don’t yet have all the biochemical or immunological questions to ask as this disease progresses,” Brabetz said. “No one can answer how long a vaccine will be protective until time has marched on. We don’t yet know how the binding of SARS-CoV-2 proteins to organs or tissues of the body affects their function after recovery.”

Gillette-Ferguson said using current topics to draw students into the subject matter is always a priority, and that the pandemic makes understanding concepts a lot easier for students within the program. With Cobleskill’s immunology class, COVID has since become a go-to example for even the “simplest immune responses.”

“Today I was talking about antibody responses to vaccine and used the COVID vaccine as an example for why two doses need to be given,” Gillette-Ferguson said. “The immune system’s first response then is followed by a more sophisticated second response that lasts much longer. Anyone receiving a second dose of a vaccine is challenging and reinforcing the creation of that long-term immunity.”

Alyssa Giacinto, a December 2020 graduate, has taken immunology, water chemistry and biochemistry courses through the biotech program. Learning through the lens of COVID, she said, was crucial in her education.

“I’m more of a visual learner,” Giacinto said. “So actually getting to look at numbers and rates and all that stuff, especially when it came from immunology, looking at infection rates, it really helped out. It gave a huge example of something happening in real time, and here’s how it interacts with your immune system, here’s why you get this symptom, here’s why some people don’t get symptoms at all.”

As for what she hopes to instill in her students with these real-time examples, Gillette-Ferguson said those who take the courses have been able to see an “extraordinarily unusual time of real-time global collaboration and data exchange.”

“We have the unique opportunity to watch science and biotechnology unfold real-time from the world’s skilled scientists as we all fight this viral pandemic,” she said. “With it comes stumbles and dead-ends as well as great advances. The natural progression of scientific discovery has always been like this, albeit not at this breakneck speed.”

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