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A positive reaction: Chemistry lab returns to in-person learning

Chemistry labAs Creighton University nears its Aug. 17 date to resume in-person, undergraduate classes, the Department of Chemistry joins several health sciences programs as trailblazers, working to safely return to laboratory, clinical and research settings.

An undergraduate Summer Sessions organic chemistry lab began earlier this month using in-person, on-campus instruction while adhering to all Creighton, state and federal COVID-19 guidelines, including daily COVID-19 screenings. The lab, required for a chemistry degree and many pre-health science tracks, also serves as a trial run for the pending campus reopening, according to David Dobberpuhl, PhD, chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Javed Ali, MS, an instructor in organic chemistry.

“We really see this as a pilot project,” Dobberpuhl says. “We are trying to develop best practices and thought we could optimize things more safely in smaller summer courses than when everyone comes back to campus in August.

“So it’s something of a trial run, and it has worked very well so far.”

The lab consists of six students, Ali and a teaching assistant, a number that is anticipated to grow to about 20 students for two in-person labs starting in July.

“We anticipate having between 15 and 20 students in the second session and that this will serve as the actual working model for when we come back for the fall semester,” Ali says.

Ali says he has been bringing his chemistry classroom and lab into conformance with COVID-19 restrictions.

“What I did before classes began was to use blue tape to mark six feet from every bench in every direction, and I told the students they could seat themselves at any lab station that was marked,” Ali says.

“I’ve done the same with the lab equipment and other workspaces and told everyone they must conform to social-distancing guidelines.”

The reduction of classroom and lab space represented by the six-foot distancing will require significant, though temporary, adjustments in the chemistry program, Dobberpuhl says. First- and second-year chemistry lab courses typically enroll around 35 or more students, he says, which might mean students will have to alternate between on-campus and Zoom participation until the COVID-19 crisis is fully resolved.

“I’m optimistic, however, that we will be able to make it work,” he says. “Will things be quite as efficient or as quick as they were? Certainly not. Everyone’s going to have to be a little more patient, but that’s the new normal.”

Much is being learned that will be applicable to the wider campus reopening in August, Dobberpuhl says, including protocol concerning masks.

“Jess Gunn, our general chemistry laboratory coordinator, learned that the same mask worn over and over in a lab could potentially collect and concentrate volatile organic solvents,” he says. “This could lead to sensitization and possible allergies, so now we’re saying everyone should wear a new disposable mask each time to minimize the chances of allergies or perhaps some sort of skin condition because of what they’re doing in the lab.”

And Ali is learning that alcohol-based hand sanitizers, while useful, might be inferior to simple handwashing.

“Repeated use of hand sanitizers can make the skin more permeable and thus potentially susceptible to infection or other skin conditions,” he says, reflecting the thoughts of his colleague, Jess Gunn, PhD. “So the best practice might still be to continue washing your hands with soap and water, although we certainly won’t discourage hand sanitizers.”

It is, Dobberpuhl says, a journey.

“There are things we are finding out every day, and this is the point of conducting a small summer laboratory,” he says. “We are flying a plane as we are building it and are getting tremendous support from people like vice provost (for Academic Administration and Operations) Tricia Sharrar. Conversations with other faculty such as Mark Reedy, chair of the Biology Department, have also been extremely helpful.”


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