Keeping students engaged is one of the biggest challenges facing any teacher – especially these days with remote learning. But holding her students’ attention hasn’t been as big an issue for Anastasia Zimmerman, who teaches molecular biology and immunology, as well as a senior capstone class on virology.

Ana Zimmerman meets with some of her virology capstone students on zoom

Anastasia Zimmerman meets with some of her virology capstone students on zoom.

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in China in early January 2020, the College of Charleston professor has been using the pandemic as a highly relevant teaching tool this semester for her immunology course since the academic plan called for a focus on viruses.

“Many of the students have been remarking to me how amazing it is that what we have already learned is now on the news every day,” she says, referring to the section she taught on vaccines. “In my lifetime as an immunologist, I have never seen immunology on the center stage as it is now, and it’s just fascinating to me.”

Zimmerman’s classroom has shifted from the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center to her kitchen table at her home on James Island, but the curriculum remains the same. She posts her lectures and homework assignments online, while utilizing Zoom discussion groups so students can chat with her and their classmates about the course material. Before the extended spring break, the 40 students in her immunology class spent the first eight weeks studying the fundamental topics of immunology, along with primary and secondary immune responses. Now they’re tying it all together using the coronavirus as an example.

“The therapeutics being discussed now on national news are ideas and techniques that we have already discussed in class,” she says. “It’s been amazing.”

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It’s hard to find many, if any, silver linings in this pandemic, but this is one.

“It is interesting to see a real-world application of what we’re learning that influences public health policy, treatment options and provides literature pertaining to the life cycle of the virus and the role of the immune system,” says sophomore biology major Rob Robino. “With this versatile application, it has made me more engaged in the field of immunology and virology.”

In her virology capstone, three students are downloading the base pairs of the coronavirus DNA sequencing information that has become available online and are using a computer program to figure out what genes are in the genome.

This is not learning in the abstract, that’s for sure. Says Zimmerman: “We can work on it in a virtual capacity and use it as a teaching tool of how we analyze DNA sequences.”

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Earlier this semester students in Zimmerman’s class discovered a different novel virus, identified as a bacteriophage.

The students had originally planned on sequencing the DNA of a novel virus they had discovered in soil as part of a nationwide research project funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It turns out there are actually good viruses called bacteriophages that infect bacteria, which is what the students isolated.

“Not all viruses are evil,” says Zimmerman. “The virus that our students isolated is actually productive in that it might prove capable of killing of tuberculosis, so viruses can actually be therapeutic. It puts a positive spin on viruses because right now, they’re not being viewed in a very positive light.”

The biggest drawback to the online learning going on now is that the students can’t continue their lab work on the virus they discovered.

“It’s very disappointing,” adds Zimmerman. “They’re very sad that our virus is sitting alone in the fridge in the teaching lab.”

Although the world is witnessing tremendous suffering due to the coronavirus, another silver lining, Zimmerman hopes, is that people will view science in higher regard than before, and we will become a more compassionate society with more resources devoted to science education. It also may inspire younger generations to enter the field, just as the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s inspired her.

“My research with bacteriophages, paired with the semester I spent learning immunology, has only strengthened my desire to become a doctor,” says senior biology major Alissa Mingo. “Seeing the misinformation being spread, watching family members prepare themselves inadequately and hearing stories about those who unfortunately were unable to fight this disease makes me want to be on the front lines in any way possible to find a solution and implement it. Even if all I can do now is spread the right information, if it calms my mom’s fears and helps keep her safe, then that’s a win in my book.”

Adds Zimmerman: “I would imagine that today’s children will anchor their worldview of science and biology on events that are currently happening, which could be a good thing because we are going to need a creative, informed and capable scientific workforce to combat these diseases.”