#19: De-Tooling BIO Lab

Look past the equipment in an academic wet lab classroom — the pipettes, autoclave, centrifuge, DNA sequencer, gel and blot imaging station, incubators, microscopes — and what’s left? UC Irvine Associate Teaching Professor Pavan Kadandale had to ask himself that very question regarding his upper-level undergraduate molecular biology lab when the University of California System moved to all-remote instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Pavan shifted the focus from development of hands-on skills and, instead, asked students to design laboratory experiments based on the computational techniques that have become such an important component of modern biology research. Pavan has strong ties to his institution’s first-gen student programs, and his research centers on how to get students excited about Biology and improve learning outcomes, so equity and inclusion were top-of-mind as he set out to design an online lab course. His take on recalibrating the standard approach to the biology laboratory experience is a breath of fresh air, and we found his ambition to live up to his students’ expectations inspiring. We’re betting you will, too.

We went completely online. We didn’t do hybrid. On issues of equity and inclusion there was a pretty strong consensus that we needed to be completely online to be fair to as many students as we could. #highered #onlineteaching


KIERAN: Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…

DAN: … I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy.  We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.

KIERAN: Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.

DAN: You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.  

KIERAN: Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.


KIERAN: Look past the equipment in an academic wet lab classroom — pipettes, test tubes and flasks, microscopes, DNA sequencer, gel and blot imaging station — and what’s left? When the University of California system moved to all-remote instruction, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UC Irvine Associate Teaching Professor Pavan Kadandale had to ask himself that very question. 

Pavan shifted the focus of his upper-level undergraduate molecular biology lab away from development of hands-on skills Instead, he asked students to design laboratory experiments based on the computational techniques that have become such an important component of modern biology research.

Pavan has strong ties to his institution’s first-gen student programs, and his research centers on how to get students excited about Biology and improve learning outcomes, so equity and inclusion were top-of-mind as he set out to design an online lab course. His take on recalibrating the standard approach to biology laboratory experiences is a breath of fresh air, and we found his ambition to live up to his students’ expectations inspiring. We’re betting you will, too.

You’ll find transcripts, guest bios, show notes, and links to referenced resources on our website, wiredivy.org. While you’re there, you can email or leave a voicemail message with comments, questions, and suggestions, you can connect to the Wired Ivy community, and subscribe to the Wired Ivy newsletter to receive an email alert each time a new episode drops. 

Now, let’s fire up our virtual Bunsen burner…

[Bunsen burner and bubbling liquid in laboratory flask]

…and find out what it takes to map the genome of an online biology lab!


DAN: Wired Ivy’s guest today is Pavan Kadandale. Pavan is an associate teaching professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. He serves on several university initiatives geared towards broad student success. Two are noteworthy for today’s conversation. Pavan serves as the faculty advisor for the University of California, Irvine’s first-gen student programs, and as the director of the university’s first-gen faculty initiative. Another important service is on the steering committee for a project called LIFTED, Leveraging Inspired Futures Through Educational Degrees, which strives to provide a pathway for incarcerated students to obtain a UCI degree.

Along with his other duties, Pavan teaches laboratory courses fully online, which is something we want to learn more about today.  Pavan, thank you for joining us on Wired Ivy.

PAVAN: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to have a conversation with you both.

KIERAN:  Yeah, this should be fun!

DAN: So, Pavan, tell us about the path that got you to the University of California at Irvine. 

PAVAN: I have three sort of big jumps, I guess, to get through Irvine. The first was, I grew up in India, I did my Masters and my Bachelors in India, and then I came to New Jersey, to Rutgers University, to do my PhD. Then from there I jumped over to the West Coast and did a postdoc in San Diego. 

It was really during my postdoc that I started noticing… I would work with a lot of very talented undergrads who would have a real issue with sort of understanding, like they knew stuff, but they didn’t know how to piece together stuff or how to be critical about the stuff that they knew. That really got me thinking about what we were doing in the classroom and how we were teaching science.

One of the ways in which I thought about it is, I was like, oh, if I think about my own education and I think about most of the classes I’ve been in, I would walk into a room and there was an older person at the front of the room, usually an older male, who was propounding all of this knowledge that was contained in a book. And a bunch of students would be sitting and just, you know, taking in this knowledge without questioning.

I would hear undergrads telling me how they thought biology was a bunch of memorization and it broke my heart. That’s not what biology is. It’s this beautiful way of looking at the world and understanding the things around us. And so then I got really interested in how we teach science and how we learn science. That started me moving more towards education and teaching as a scientist with a very strong science background.

I ended up with my position at UCI where my primary focus is on biology education. I’m embedded in the department of molecular bio and biochemistry because it’s very integrated with the science that happens within the department. So that’s my journey.

DAN:  And what courses are you responsible for at UCI?  I mean, all of them… online, not online.

PAVAN:  Right now I teach a lower division biochemistry course for about 700 students, but across two sections. And then at the opposite end of the spectrum, I teach a couple of upper-division labs, a molecular biology lab, and a biochemistry lab. So those are the main courses I teach. But recently a colleague of mine and I also developed this new course for transfer students coming into UCI and the goal was that you take these transfer students that usually come in with, at a much higher level of maturity than most of our undergrads, and you throw them some really challenging stuff so they immediately get incorporated into the academic milieu at UCI and they get excited in research.

KIERAN:  Did those courses have an online component prior to this year? 

PAVAN: None of them had really any online component pre COVID except for the biochemistry class, which for several years I had received funding to develop a completely online version of the course that ran simultaneously with the in-person course for students that couldn’t for various reasons access the course in person.  They did all the same exams, they listened to the same lecture and stuff like that, but it was completely online and they never needed to come to class.

KIERAN: So you are in the unusual position of both having experience as an online instructor AND also being thrown into remote instruction on short notice as a result of the COVID outbreak. How much time did you have to convert your face-to-face classes, and how did that conversion go?  

PAVAN: The last week of winter quarter was when things got really bad. Everyone went home, and since then it’s just been completely online. And I had about one week to create completely, and last spring quarter was when I was teaching two of my lab courses, and I had one week to completely make them go online and figure out what I was going to do and how it was going to be online.

We went completely online. We didn’t do hybrid. A lot of the thinking had to do with issues of equity and inclusion. We thought about, for example, if I teach a lab course where a student can actually come in and let’s say, run a gel, and I have other students who, for various issues — say they lost their job or had to take care of parents or for whatever reason — couldn’t come in, and they’re only watching a video of this experiment, that’s not the same experience. That doesn’t sound very equitable or inclusive. It was a pretty strong decision and pretty strong consensus that really we needed to be completely online to be fair to as many students as we could.

KIERAN: That’s a really interesting approach because so many universities made the decision that lecture courses could be delivered online but labs and other experiential content had to be prioritized for in-person.

DAN: The biochemistry class that you said has been taught for several years online, I’m wondering how that was first initiated. Was it your call to do it? It was Irvine trying to move courses online. What was the original motivation?

PAVAN: The UC system had this idea that if you created a lot of high quality online courses, it would be very easy for students from one campus to take those courses on another campus without having to physically move. The idea was there could then be a lot more integration of the strengths of each campus. So let’s say a campus was very strong in structural biology, and they had all these great structural biology lectures. And let’s say that happened to be UC Irvine. Now a student at UC Berkeley might be able to plug into this if there were a bunch of online structural biology courses. And I’m oversimplifying a little bit, but that was sort of the, the general idea of why UC, as a system, started this initiative to develop a bunch of high quality online courses. Through that, I got funding to create an online biochemistry course.

DAN: And, and did you in fact, see inter-campus enrollment?

PAVAN: We did not see as many inter-campus enrollments as was originally planned because of each university’s unique set of educational requirements. Right? So for example, if a student took a biochemistry course that I, that I was teaching online, they might only get unit credit for it at UC Davis, but it wouldn’t count towards their major. So then it’s like, well then why the hell would I waste my time taking this course when I have to take biochemistry again at UC Davis?

Those are some of the issues… so we call them articulation issues, which people are working on currently to try and minimize and still get to a point where there’s a lot more collaboration and a lot more cross student enrollment.

DAN: I remember a few years back, there was a bit of press for all public universities, but the UC system seemed to be held up as the exemplar in this case .where there were capacity issues.  There weren’t enough seats in classes for students to get their courses in in four years and graduate. Was the push towards online also an attempt to sort of expand capacity so people could get through more efficiently.

PAVAN: Yeah, so I think it wasn’t that there weren’t enough seats across an entire curriculum, but that there was certain, what we call impacted courses, where a lot of students have to take a particular course.  And so again, the idea was, yeah, if you had online courses, then it might be also easier for students. There was this notion that online meant you created something, you dump it on the internet and then [whoosh] it just magically happens by itself, right?

KIERAN:  Sure… because, really, online delivery is just a kind of DIY, upload the voice-over-PowerPoint files and you’re done [laughing].

PAVAN: Yeah, exactly.  I think that’s been some of our experiences, that it turns out that it’s not actually that much less expensive to run a high quality online educational experience than it is to have an in-person educational experience.  So I think that’s another realization that people have been having, um, Over the course of several years, as I’ve, as I’ve experienced this whole, you know, pendulum swing of, Oh, we’re all going to be online and it’s the wave of the future. Um, yeah, maybe not so much.

KIERAN: Just to clarify… the class you were teaching online, before spring of 2020, is that a lecture course? Is there a lab associated with that course? 

PAVAN: Yes, It’s a lecture course.

KIERAN: Ok, and you were teaching that online lecture course synchronously? 

PAVAN: No, that course was, was asynchronous because the, the lectures were recorded and they were posted. The online students could watch it anytime they wanted. It was asynchronous when it was run. The only thing that was synchronous about it was the exams. They had to take the exams at the same time as the in-person students. But other than that, yeah. Yeah, there was, it was completely asynchronous.

DAN: Sounds like you must have had a good bit of warning that you were going to be doing the prep time the quarter before, or the summer before, something like that.

PAVAN: Yeah, exactly. I was also very lucky. I managed to recruit a bunch of very talented undergrads who had taken the course before. I would consult with them and we would, you know, talk about what would be a good experience and what kinds of videos should we make?

And I also collaborated with another colleague of mine, Brian Sato. It was a very collaborative effort, that, that in the end turned out to be, you know, pretty good. Again, I was, I was very concerned with the idea that the experience was the same and the learning was the same.

What became clear over the several years that I ran the course was that the learning seemed to be the same because the exam scores would be indistinguishable between the sections. But the online students had a much worse experience. They felt much more isolated, they didn’t feel as much supported… which is all, I guess, what you would expect. 

KIERAN: Yeah, especially since that class is delivered in what I think of when someone uses the term blended, although I don’t think this is the “official” definition… where some students are in-person, and others are distributed. In that case the two groups definitely have different experiences. 

I would assume, although I’m running a graduate program for adult learners, that the social aspect of being on campus and attending in-person classes is a higher priority for undergrads. Our students, in the program Dan and I are connected to, they choose an online program because that’s what will work for them. They really weren’t expecting that social aspect from an online program.

PAVAN: Yeah. Whereas I think the undergrads that’s the expected and the learning is the add-on.

KIERAN: I suspect that’s a big factor in why we’re seeing so many negative reviews from students who are in these remote delivery courses. I mean, part of it is that those courses were never intentionally designed for online instruction, but I also think undergrads, in particular, tend to conflate their disappointment over not having the college experience they dreamed of and the educational outcomes they’re receiving in class. I don’t think the media is teasing that out when they do stories on student perceptions of how higher ed is doing in this emergency response. I hope someone, at some point, does do some research into that aspect of the whole experience.

DAN: But I am curious in your experience, what was the determining factor in who was in the classroom sections and who was in the online sections?  I mean, I did they self-select, so the online students intended to be online, or were they just put there?

PAVAN: No, they, it was totally self-selected. They had a choice and they chose to do it online for whatever reason.  I, I don’t know why a lot of students chose to do online, except anecdotally, when I later on spoke to a couple of students. 

One of them, she was actually in the hospital when she, she had this life-threatening disease, it was an auto immune disorder. If this online course accomplished nothing else, she got to take the biochemistry course, and she would not have been able to do that in person. And it’s such a heartwarming story because she, you know, she beat the odds she’s doing really well. It’s one of those feel good moments, absolute feel-good moments.

KIERAN: That’s such a great reason for asking faculty to at least consider how they might prepare for a situation in which students can’t come to an in-person class, even temporarily. I remember having that conversation with colleagues on the VT campus years ago, in anticipation of what was expected to be a major flu outbreak. But it didn’t really go anywhere because, over-extended as most faculty are, just putting out today’s fire can use up all of your available energy. So, you know, it’s understandable.

Can you explain in a bit more detail how your blended lecture course–some students in class, some online — how did that work?

PAVAN: Yes, so, so there were videos that were recorded. That both classes got to see. Kind of a flipped classroom. And then the in-person classes would have synchronous sessions three times a week, where they would come in, they would sit in a lecture hall, I would give them the additional lecture, they would do some activities in class, all of which was recorded and then posted for the online students as well. But they didn’t have to, they could be, they could be looking at those videos anytime in the quarter. Hopefully they looked at those videos before each midterm, but I have no idea what they did. 

And then the in-person class also had weekly discussion sections that they, was not compulsory. They could go to where there would be a TA. They would have some discussion worksheets. They would work through some complex data-driven problems. The same worksheets were posted for the online students and they would discuss it asynchronously on a discussion board.

Everything was, as far as that went, everything was in parallel except it was asynchronous and online for the online class and synchronous and in-person for the in-person class. The midterms would happen, again, physically present for the in-person students. And at the same time using remote proctoring, the online students would be taking the exact same exam at the exact same time.  So that was the only time when everything happened at the same time.

KIERAN: That’s kind of an example of every way you can teach, in-person and online, in one class.

DAN: But the online students had some sort of discussion section with the section leader. I mean, did they have some opportunity for interaction?

PAVAN: They had a TA that was dedicated to their section that they could contact anytime that they wanted to during the course, throughout the week. So they didn’t have to go to a discussion section. They had a dedicated TA. They could access the TA anytime they chose. And the TA had special office hours.

KIERAN: Wait… were they able to interact with each other, or only with the TA?

PAVAN: A chance to interact with the TA. And with me, of course, obviously. I was also there on the discussion board. I was present in the class. I would respond to their comments, but everything was happening asynchronous beyond a discussion.

KIERAN: And students in the face-to-face part of the class… did they also have access to the asynchronous discussions, like the online students?

PAVAN: Correct. They had a discussion board as well that they could interact on. Yes, exactly.

DAN: I think one of the things that, certainly I’m curious about, I won’t speak for Kieran, is the act of creating the online educational materials for the online students.  You know, how did that impact the overall teaching of the course?  Did the innovations you had to make for the online students eventually affect the materials or the, the learning modalities for the in-person students?

PAVAN: It did, in the sense of, it made me think about, for example, how I was assessing student learning, whether it was reflective of what I was trying to get them to achieve. It made me think a lot about how to build collaboration into the classroom, because again, one of the big feedback from the online classes was that they were feeling very distant and dissociated from the material.

You know, I had to think a lot about, in the end, redesigning even the in person experience to be focused very heavily on a collaborative model of learning, as opposed to an individual model of learning. Those are some of the things that I’ve really thought long and hard about. 

DAN: I will say in my experience that the act of setting up a remote learning environment forces me as the instructor to be much, much more explicit about the learning objectives, the activities, trying to set up intentional collaboration as opposed to sort of casual or informal collaboration. So I think both the, the remoteness and the asynchronicity worked towards very intentional design when I’m building out an online course. 

So, but now that course, the biochem class, are you, you’re still in charge of that, you said.

PAVAN: Yes, I still am.

DAN: But clearly that’s entirely online right now. That’s the way it is.

PAVAN: Well, it will be coming up in the winter quarter. So the next quarter it will be completely online, but all of my colleagues are going to be teaching all of their classes online. People make a distinction between online and remote… 

KIERAN: I think this year there’s been a kind of informal consensus that we use the term “online” it means “courses intentionally designed for virtual delivery.” 

DAN: Was that what you were thinking, the difference between online and remote is?

PAVAN: Yes. That’s exactly correct. That’s exactly the distinction that’s made as well, the difference between remote and online. So we’re, we’re. You have to be very careful about or be remote or be online. And then there’s a pride. It’s like, no, I thought about my class. Therefore mine is online. 

KIERAN: [laughing] Oh… humans.

PAVAN: And again, not that, not that the UC system could have predicted this, but I think again, having people like me, like the embedded sort of people more interested in teaching has made the transition so much easier because there’s already this expertise within our department.

You know, suddenly people are coming to me and my colleagues and saying, “Hey, I have to do this. You know, teach this class remote but I want students to interact. What can I do?” So even when just a little bit of intentionality, I think we can, we’ve helped many of our colleagues push their classes beyond just remote and actually be thoughtful about how they wanted to do their online classes.  So I think that’s been one of the really awesome things to see at UCI. 

KIERAN: There’s been a lot of discussion, informally, on social media groups and such, that being forced into teaching online will open eyes. 

PAVAN: I’m not convinced that that’s going to change. Because, again, this is my personal opinion, not reflective of anything else. But I think what COVID is really done for me is just expose everything. It’s, it’s really made it impossible to ignore the things that already exist.  So I think my colleagues who were kind of, how should I put this, not great instructors In-person, are not that great at online instruction either. Right? And my colleagues who were very thoughtful about, “Oh, I want students to interact. I want students to work through complex problems,” have found ways to incorporate that into their online classes. 

Because UCI has a great support system, we’ve been able to tap into the technology that we need to make that kind of transition. I don’t think it’s, it’s significantly moved a lot of people’s opinions about teaching.  I think it’s… the people that are already willing to change, I think it’s forced them to change a little bit faster. Maybe that’s the outcome.

DAN: That makes sense for the people who were wanting to or able to innovate, it accelerated innovation. And for those who are never going to want to innovate, no pandemics going to change that.  

So Pavan, walk us through one of your lab courses. That’s something that we see as particularly challenging, and I’ve certainly heard people say, “Oh, you can’t teach a lab course online!”  And yet… How does it work?

PAVAN: I want to clarify and say, there are some things you, you absolutely cannot do online. I cannot teach my students to pipette online. That was something I had to realize. It’s something that you have to physically do with your hands. We’re not doing that online. Watching a video of somebody pipetting ain’t gonna to teach you how to pipette.

And I think that was my starting point. Labs to me are about skills, right? Building skills on how to do an experiment, how to design an experiment, how to then analyze the data and come to some kind of meaningful conclusion. So I thought about how do I recapitulate that while being true to the nature of the class, which is people are sitting in front of a computer and not physically working with their hands.

So the way I thought about it is, modern biology uses a lot of computational techniques and requires a lot of computational skills and you can design experiments based on those computational techniques. And so I said, why don’t I make my online class based on those skills, so that at the end of the day, on the other side of this pandemic, my students can still go out into a job into the job market or into grad schools and say, I have experience doing X and they would be not lying because they did X in the lab course. May not be pipetting, but it’s some sort of computational skill, which I think is also very, very valuable these days. That was my philosophy in designing my, my lab classes. 

KIERAN: Say more about how you approached moving a biology lab into an online format, please.

PAVAN: Starting from that point, let me walk you through the molecular biology lab that’s been taught online, completely online, in the spring. I helped two other instructors teach completely online in two different summer sessions, and now I’m teaching it online in the fall session. It’ll be taught online next winter and next spring as well. So I think we’ve got it dialed in. 

The thing that, that seems to be most relevant right now is COVID, and coronavirus, too. And one of the nice things is there’s just enormous amounts of data that’s being dumped into publicly available repositories that you can mine and you can design experiments around. 

So students come in and the first thing they do is they learn how to use research tools to actually find out some background information. Rather than lecture to them about the virus replication cycle and how SARS-CoV2 infects cells, I have them figure out for themselves, how does our SARS-CoV2 infect cells, how does it replicate, what are all of the proteins responsible for that process, and how do each of those proteins function within that life cycle and within that biological process? So that’s the first set of research that they do. 

And this mirrors what you would do for a research project, which is you would go understand the background. And you’re not going to get a lecture on it, your PI is going to be like, well, go see what people have done since 1960 on this subject, right, and you flounder for a little bit, and then slowly you build your knowledge base. 

Now they, they kind of know something about the virus. And then there’s two modules that uses this information.  The first is a genomics module where they go and access publicly available sequences of SARS-CoV2 from various samples. And based on the metadata that’s, or the external data that’s associated with those samples — like, let’s say, for example, geographic region, or the date the sample was collected — they then have to design an experiment where that somehow based on comparing all the sequences. 

What the students are learning is, they’re grappling with a lot of the questions that scientists are grappling with right now. 

KIERAN: And this is an undergrad course, correct?

PAVAN: This is an undergrad course, yeah.  I’ve always thought our students are phenomenal and they rise to… everything I’ve thrown at my students, Kieran, they have risen to the challenge.  I think we underestimate a lot of our students, honestly.

DAN: Yeah, and phenomenal… let them prove it, you know, let them show it.

PAVAN: Yeah. So that’s the first thing that they do. And then the next thing that they do is, is just like you can look at genome sequence data, you can also look at data that’s based on the expression of genes in cells. So we call this transcriptomic data, right? So mRNA, which is sort of the, the second step in the formation of proteins. So you can look at all of it. Now we have the ability to look at every single mRNA that’s produced in a certain sample. And then we can compare it across samples and we can say which genes are being more or less expressed under different conditions. 

And with this, with the sort of new technologies that we have, we’re spitting out, like, literally millions of sequences every single day. Right? So again, the computational power that’s required to analyze this is pretty immense, and now you can do that on a server that’s publicly available. It’s fantastic.

And again, I was thinking a lot about equity and inclusion. I couldn’t design a computational course that required all my students to have access to a mainframe computer in their living room. Big shout out to Galaxy.org. They have this publicly available web server where they’ve collated a whole bunch of these tools in one place. They give anyone in the world 50 gigs of space to do their analysis so all my students can jump on, they create accounts, they do all of these really sophisticated analysis. Fantastic project. They saved my butt. 

Once you have that sort of metadata or extra data that surrounds the genome sequence data, students can design experiments and ask a question. How do you define a meaningfully differentially expressed gene? 

And then once you have this list of genes, so you have like 2000 genes that are differentially expressed, what do you do with that? How do you use that to understand something about the biology, right? How do you use that to make a biological hypothesis?  They’re like, “Oh, is this correct?” And I’m like, I don’t know. There was no SARS-CoV2 six months ago, why…

KIERAN: Welcome to science. Real science, where we undertake a project without knowing the answer before we begin.

PAVAN: Yeah. So that’s the course. And then, you know, these are the three days they do, they do this over the course of 10 weeks. It’s it’s, everything is chunked up so that there’s structure and they do little bits of it every week. And then it culminates in everything coming together in the end with their final analysis, they write some lab reports to get feedback…

DAN: And they must be working in teams.

PAVAN: Absolutely.  They work in teams, and the whole lab is, again, set up to mirror a research lab. Because we were not going into a physical lab space, what they do is each team figures out a meeting time with their PI, which in this case is the grad student TA. 

So they meet for half an hour, every week with their TA and they go over what’s going on with their experiment, tell them these are the results, these are the issues we’re having. And then I have meetings with my teachers every week to say, okay, is there a pain point? You know, what do we need to address? Is there something confusing that I need to clarify? Stuff like that. 

KIERAN: How does that differ from what you were doing in an in-person lab for this same class?

PAVAN: Again, the general philosophy, Kieran, would be exactly the same. It’s giving them an idea of, of real science and making them grapple with questions that scientists grapple with, except that the focus would have been on hands-on stuff. 

So for example, one group of students wanted to compare the microbiome in the soles of their shoes and see whether the kind of shoe mattered to the microbiome or did the activities the person was involved in matter more to the composition of the microbiome. They were, you know, they were literally scraping stuff off their soles, they were breaking it open, making the DNA, you know, all of that stuff. Yeah, so that’s the difference.

KIERAN: Definitely more focus on hands-on skills, sounds like, using equipment. But equipment evolves over time, right? And the skills needed change, too, with new breakthroughs and protocols. What you’re teaching them in the online version is foundational–How do you develop a research question? How will you test the hypothesis? What data will you need? How will you analyze those data? Those skills would seem to have longer term efficacy for their careers, since they’re less subject to change over time… yes?

PAVAN: Yeah. I, like I said, obviously, I think so. Cause that’s how I designed the course, so clearly we agree. But in my mind there’s also something to be said about those physical skills, even though they’re changing.

KIERAN: Absolutely. Focusing on one component doesn’t dismiss the importance of others. But no one class addresses every aspect of the subject being taught. It can’t.

DAN: Well, that gets me to a question about the Association of Biology Laboratory Education. What’s their position on these lab courses that have had to pivot to online or remote. Are there other lab courses that you’re aware of where there some sort of simulation of the physical skills as well, and have existed, perhaps, for even longer?

PAVAN: ABLE, which I’m a member of, is a great organization. Wonderful resource, where people throughout this time have been sharing expertise, have been sharing ideas for lab courses at all levels.  

I’m teaching an upper division lab course, and I’m only teaching a hundred students. This design would have look vastly different, as if I was teaching a lab course where I had to teach lower division students and teach 2,000 of them. That’s a whole different set of issues. People are chiming in on that and saying, “Hey, I have, I have to give a lab course to 2,000 students. How would I, what do I do, what are some ideas? And ABLE has been a fantastic venue where people have been exchanging those ideas and sort of helping each other think through some of the problems and be creative about some of the things that they’re doing. So it’s a really great organization. It’s been fantastic. 

Another organization that’s also been very, very good is SABER, The Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research. Again, great society. Again, lots of dialogue about how to do lab courses. 

DAN: Sure, I mean, presumably the bulk of lab education has always been in-person and, presumably, the bulk will go back to in person once this COVID thing is more under control.

What is the reaction of the students been to these online labs? Have you anecdotally or otherwise gotten information back from them?

PAVAN: I think most students have really enjoyed them. They’ve commented on the fact that it’s so relevant. It’s like on their minds and they’re getting to do stuff that people are doing right now.  And it’s, it’s been really nice for them to see these techniques applied right away. Right? It’s not some theoretical, “Oh, if there’s a global pandemic, we might want to look at transcriptomic data.” It’s like, no, we’re looking at it right now. 

DAN: Yeah. The labs as you have redesigned them really puts the extra energy then on the research design and the analysis. So they’re, they’re not getting the hands-on work, but that energy is being redirected towards some pretty big and pertinent questions right now. So I think they would probably get excited. 

PAVAN: A lot of them did get very, very excited. There’s a couple of groups of students that actually, uh, ended up asking some really fun questions. And so they’ve continued to collaborate past the course, and we’re almost ready to publish a couple of papers based on the stuff they did in class and then beyond it. Clearly there was quite a bit of excitement, at least in some quarters of the class. 

But at the same time, you know, I want to also point out that, that some students were very upset with this, with this course, because of the immediacy of it. And they were like, COVID is hitting us all the time, 24 hours a day, and now I have to do this even for my coursework. Like, I don’t get a break. 

DAN: So you needed a trigger warning in a molecular biology class.

PAVAN: I, I don’t know. I don’t know what someone is going through. If their, like, grandparents are dying of COVID and I’m asking them to analyze transcriptomic data on SARS-CoV2.  I don’t, I have no concept of what emotional things they’re going through. I try and stay cognizant of the fact that it’s not going to be great for every student. And I don’t have a good answer, Dan. I don’t know what I should do.

KIERAN: What has me excited about the course your describing is… what if they actually stumble on some truly breakthrough discovery? 

DAN: It’s lab work at it’s the most honest sense because they’re working on questions and problems that no one’s ever worked on before.

PAVAN: I just want to point out, I didn’t tell them what question to ask. They came up with the question, they discussed it, they work as a team, they’re with him. I told them I wasn’t even going to write the paper.  So they’re writing the paper, right? This is all them, you know? Just, just great kids. So it’s, again, one of those feel good moments, right? You see these people, you see their motivation is just fantastic.

DAN: I’d like to sort of turn our gaze a little bit to a different side on the same subject here. I know you’ve done a lot of work with the first-gen students there at UCI. I’m wondering, in your experience at least, do you find that the challenges for first-gen students are amplified or diminished with an online modality?  Are there special challenges?

PAVAN: I think they’re mostly amplified for the reason that first gen students usually tend to be very integrated with their families. Being in college in person, give them an opportunity to be away from those responsibilities and focus on themselves and their studies. Now that they’re back at home, they’re re-shouldering a lot of those responsibilities and now having to juggle much more than they might have when they were in person. 

It’s just amazing what so many students do. I had a student and I don’t know if the student was first-generation or not, but this student would drive every morning to a little strip mall and sit in his car and work there the whole day, because that was the only place he got reliable internet. I have students that are, that have had to move back home, and then now that they’re back home, there’s suddenly expected to be caregivers for their younger siblings. So now they’re juggling being caregivers with their regular course load. 

And it’s very hard, I think for first-generation families to understand what that student is going through, because they have no sense. They’re like, Oh, you just have to read some books. Like how hard is that here? Here, like, cook dinner for, for the whole family because you’re not really doing anything useful.

KIERAN: I think most of us are becoming more familiar with the access issues this year, especially Internet access. But, Pavan, you’re raising a key point about the learning environment.  The issue of creating equity for students, even for intentionally designed online courses, is something I don’t think we’ve even begun to address, and I’m not sure how much we can.

PAVAN: I don’t have a good answer. I just, just try the best you can. I try to be open with my students and say, look, I understand this is what’s going through. So tell me what’s going on and how I can be flexible because otherwise I have no… I cannot design something, do you know, that takes into consideration every possibility. That’s been my approach. Works sometimes, doesn’t work sometimes… I…

DAN: But still the call for explicit communication, I think is critical. You don’t know what’s going on with them and, to the degree that you’re able to make accommodations, obviously you’re willing to. 

PAVAN: The other thing that been also very proactive about is, like, as soon as that’s one of the nice things about the sort of team environment is we also tell the teams to tell the TAs or me, if one of their members suddenly goes missing. And so we’ve managed to catch some issues. That’s been, that’s been, our approach is we try and, try and catch as many problems as possible, but, but yeah, to really realize how much disparity there is. And it’s just been just, just heartbreaking that I can’t… on students who have to go back, they’re going back to abusive households. 

KIERAN: It is heartbreaking.

I have a question I’ve been asking all of our guests this season, related to COVID and the impacts on higher ed. The pandemic pivot has brought a lot of new attention to teaching without a physical classroom, whether you want to call it remote or online. I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether, now that more faculty have some level of personal experience with the virtual classroom… do you think it will lead to greater acceptance of online in higher ed? Will it create a more supportive environment for innovation or will there be a call for more standardization, to align virtual with how things are taught in-person?

PAVAN: I’m going to start off by saying I have not met a single person, student or faculty, who says that on the whole they would prefer online classes, even when we go back.  I mean, I’ve had students, I said, yeah, it’s nice. I don’t have to commute, but God, I miss going to college. I miss meeting people. I miss… there’s something deeply human that needs to be fulfilled that I think online will not fulfill. 

Like I talked about earlier, some of those changes that people were a little hesitant to make initially, but now have been forced to make, they’re not going back.  Colleagues of mine who have discovered getting students to interact, the energy that it brings even to a virtual classroom, they’re not going back to lecturing two hours a day. They’re not going to do that, right? Cause they, they just realized that it’s a different experience. That’s going to change. That’s irreversible. But I don’t think we’re going to see more acceptance of online. I really don’t.

KIERAN: I’ll take that. Any move toward more active learning is still a win in my book.

DAN: Well, I think that point’s well taken, just thinking about your lab course. When the dust settles or we can get back into the buildings, clearly there’s gonna be hands-on part that’s going to have to be in person, the way your courses are designed.  But possibly a lot of the other design and analysis work, you know, will happen in a more virtual space. I don’t know, I’m not redesigning your course for you. I’m just sort of, sort of envisioning how things might be different in the future.

PAVAN: The one thing that makes me a little sad though, is sort of my own personal experience, and this is sort of my guilty confessions. One of the reasons I actually got into science, believe it or not was because I was completely misanthropic. I didn’t want to deal with people. 

KIERAN: You’re definitely an outlier there, in the STEM fields. Quite the anomaly [laughing] 

PAVAN: Yeah, but in my head the way it worked, right, as a scientist, I was going to sit in a lab by myself, right. Collect all this data, do these fun experiments, publish my papers, and I would be left alone.

Imagine my surprise when I found that being a scientist was one of the most sociable things you can ever do in your life. And I learned to… I honestly learned to be more human, I think, by being in a lab and being forced to interact with other people and learning to actually enjoy, you know, other human beings in my life. I like to think that I haven’t fundamentally changed, but my filters have gotten a lot better. 

KIERAN: Personally, I think of it as having learned how to do simultaneous translation, like they do at UN meetings. I have my native language, which is Introvert, and then I have this other language that I’ve learned, Extrovert.  And now I know how to quickly shift back-and forth between those two tongues as needed [laughing].

DAN: That’s an artful way to see yourself. Very good!  See, you guys are talking as compatriots, but I studied engineering and it was not social enough for me, an engineer.

KIERAN: Well, Dan is definitely an extrovert. As I understand it, looking in from the outside, that’s not the most common characteristic in engineering. 

DAN: No, no, no.

So I’m worried that maybe there’s something we didn’t even know to ask. I’m wondering if you have any advice for your fellow educators looking to devise new or innovative online courses in the STEM fields or in any field, for that matter.

PAVAN: I don’t know that I have any particular insights, but a lot of things that I learned, I learned because I talked to my students. I think that’s been very it’s, it’s been very humbling for me to, to talk to my students and to have their trust that they open up to me and tell me what’s going on with their lives.

And, you know, it, it looked like, okay, let me give you an example. I have a student who transferred from community college… and this kid, this was his daily life in community college for two years. He would bike 20 miles to his first job in the morning. He would finish up his first job. He would bike another 10 miles to go to community college, finish his classes, bike another four miles to his second job, finish that job, bike all the way back home, and then he would do his work, whatever homework assignments, blah, blah, blah, that he had, go to sleep… rinse and repeat. For two years. 

But here’s the thing that blows my mind. If I were in his position, I would not have been like, let’s just, I’m going to be very clear. I would not have managed to do that. The resilience, the grit, that determined… I mean, just, what an amazing story. And he’s such a nice guy, so humble. And he thinks I’m awesome. He thinks my accomplishments are amazing. I always tell my students, I should get a t-shirt that says “Trying to be the person my students think I am.”

KIERAN: That’s great.

PAVAN: It’s simultaneously inspiring, humbling, and you learn so much about trying to be responsive to students, look at the world through their eyes. And that’s helped a lot in terms of thinking about how I teach, and what I teach, and what I prioritize. 

KIERAN: I’ve worked with some students in our program who astonish me, too. One who comes to mind, long since graduated, was working full-time, caring for two small kids, her husband was a veteran on 100% disability, she consistently received high marks from faculty on her contributions in class, and I heard about it. When someone like that asks if they can make an advising appointment with me to get my guidance on how to navigate their career, all I can think of is, “You want my input?! How about I sit at YOUR feet? Because, boy, I’m not worthy of this.”

PAVAN: You’re correct. You’re absolutely correct. Yeah. Exactly. It makes me a better person. I have to live up to that.

KIERAN: I think maybe that’s why your students think you’re awesome.

DAN:  Clearly it’s a good thing you found your social side because I can see why your students are so pleased to have you working with them. Our guest today on wired Ivy has been Pavan Kadandale from the University of California, Irvine. This is a great conversation. Thank you so much for joining us..

PAVAN:  Thank you for having me, Dan  and Kieran. It’s been a great, great conversation. 

KIERAN:  Thanks, Pavan, for the work you’re doing and for sharing it with us.


KIERAN: Now we want to hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions.  You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org.  And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.

DAN: Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.

KIERAN: Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

DAN: Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci…

KIERAN: And I’m Kieran Lindsey. 

KIERAN and DAN: Let’s stay connected!

How do I stay true to the nature of the class? Labs are about skills. Modern biology requires a lot of computational skills so why don’t I base my online lab on developing those skills? #highered #onlineteaching #virtualclassroom


Pavan Kadandale is an associate teaching professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at University of California, Irvine. He serves on several university initiatives geared towards broad student success, including faculty advisor for UCI’s first-gen student programs, as the director of the university’s first-gen faculty initiative, and he’s on the steering committee for a project called LIFTED, Leveraging Inspired Futures Through Educational Degrees, which strives to provide a pathway for incarcerated students to obtain a UCI degree.

  • ABLE – Association of Biology Laboratory Education
  • GALAXY – An open, web-based platform for accessible, reproducible, and transparent computational research.
  • LIFTED – Leveraging Inspired Futures Through Educational Degrees
  • PI – Principal Investigator
  • SABER – Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivyor look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

Online delivery amplifies first-gen student issues. On campus, they can focus on their studies. Back at home, students are juggling more because first-gen families don’t understand the demands of college classes. #virtualclassroom

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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