Making a virtue of necessity

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis has been to disrupt teaching at universities, and to put an abrupt end to student research projects. A number of university faculties clubbed together to devise a brilliant alternative: the Corona Research Super Project.

Tekst: Gert-Jan van den Bemd | Translated by Tony Parr | 8 april 2020

5 minutes

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Julie Nonnekens is a researcher working for both the Molecular Genetics and the Radiology & Nuclear Medicine departments at the Erasmus Medical Centre (MC). Her work is all about unravelling the underlying mechanisms involved in treating cancer with radioactive radiation. Although there’s no direct link between her work and the coronavirus crisis, she’s coordinating the Corona Research Super Project. ‘The coronavirus crisis forced everyone to start working from home about a month ago. We spent the first few weeks doing everything we could to get our teaching programmes up and running. It was then that I spoke to my colleague, Claire Wyman, who is Professor of Molecular Radiation Biology. She is academic director of Nanobiology, a joint program between Erasmus MC and TU Delft, started September 2012. 'I regularly help out with teaching duties and some of the students work in my lab. We felt that we had to come up with an alternative for those students who were unable to complete their research projects. That’s how the Corona Research Super Project started.’ Claire Wyman and Julie Nonnekens got in touch with their colleagues and compiled a list of interesting, coronavirus-related topics that students could work on from home:

Which of these models might prove to be of use in a future pandemic?

What’s the situation regarding the development of a vaccine and the immunity of the population?

What sort of treatments are there? What preventive measures have been adopted? Do they work?

What tests are being used to identify infections? Are they effective ?

How are decisions taken on how to prevent the pandemic from spreading?

Can we apply our knowledge of flu (influenza) to Covid-19?

Research question

Julie Nonnekens: ‘Over 60 students registered for the project. They come from all sorts of different backgrounds: nanobiology, physics, medicine. We’ve put together a number of multidisciplinary teams, so that students can learn from each other. Each team is supervised by an expert from a particular field – for example, immunology, virology or computer modelling. The students first study the academic literature before formulating a research question. And because the project is regarded as an alternative research project, the students have to come up with their own solutions. How much information is already available? What information do they need to produce themselves? Although a vast amount of data has been published all over the world in recent weeks, it’s not clear how much of it is accurate. That, too, is something that the students need to take into account.’

Flexible

Johanna Colgrove, the coordinator of the nanobiology programme, is assisting with the project. ‘My role is to make sure that the students and the teams can contact each other online, and that the information they collect is stored and shared in a safe manner. The first group of 60 students has now started on the project, but there’s room for more. We should be able to find more specialists who are willing to assist with the project if the numbers increase. One of the effects of the crisis is that students are missing the physical contacts with their fellow-students – it’s not easy to stay motivated when you’re on your own. The Corona Research Super Project is an exciting alternative. For some students, it’s the culmination of their degree course. For others, it’s an alternative research project. And for others, it’s an opportunity to work on a topical issue.’ Julie Nonnekens: ‘The students are in touch with other teams online, so that each team knows how the others are getting on. They write team reports, and in some cases also individual reports. The idea will be to hold a symposium at which all the results are presented. Everything depends, of course, on how the pandemic evolves.’

Gratifying

Dalia Aljawaheri is studying for a master’s in nanobiology: ‘This is a great idea for those students who, due to the current situation, can’t work in a laboratory. The Corona Research Super Project is a seedbed for new ideas – that’s what makes it so exciting. The coronavirus crisis is something that’s going on now, at this very moment. The fact that we can put our knowledge and skills to immediate use makes the project highly relevant. It’s gratifying to know that you’re working on something that’s so topical.’

In practice

Claire Wyman is keen to stress the value of the Corona Research Super Project: ‘We teach our students to be aware of the social relevance of their disciplines. We are now in a situation in which they can actually put this into practice. They have an opportunity to bring their skills to bear on a complex biological process that is taking place at this very moment and which affects us all. I’m so excited to see what results the project is going to produce.’