Department Head's Blog

Department Head’s Blog

 

March 21, 2020

After a lot of work, we are ready to being our on-line learning adventure, tomorrow. We have mastered the art of Zoom conferences , or at least we have gotten good enough to embark on our journey of on-line classes ahead. Even though we are faced with a global public health crisis it is good to occasionally hear humor, so I will share that Professor Kris Hite excitedly announced on Twitter a few days ago that his BCHM 4116 class would be broadcast from the worm caves of TeAnau, New Zealand. I suspect he will use the glow worms to explore an aspect of molecular biology, but will not elaborate as I don’t won’t to spoil anything, just in case BCHM 4116 students read this. While Professor Clement Vinauger did not have a Twitter announcement for his senior level BCHM 5234 course in Biochemical Communication, he did own up to having an Imperial Starship bridge virtual background on a recent Twitter post.  Not to be outdone by the newer generation of Biochem faculty, I have prepared my own novel virtual background for my BCHM 4784/5784 course, which begins on Tuesday. Some alumni may remember the BCHM 4784 course as “Biotechnology Applications”, which I and Erin Dolan taught many times, several years ago. Our B.S. program and this course have seeded many talented folks in the biotechnology sector,  who are hopefully devoting some of their talents and expertise to helping us solve our current infectious disease problem. This class has been re-purposed and updated and now ambitious undergraduates and our first year Biochem graduate students take the course, as part of the Qualifying exam. Professor Kylie Allen taught the first half of the 2020 course, and I am scheduled to take over the second half. As department head, I do not teach on a regular basis, so having this interaction with our graduate students comes as a very welcome engagement. I decided to scrap the syllabus for this half that I developed in early January, and instead, we will focus on the molecular biology of SARS-CoV-2. This will give us an opportunity to explore genomics and the origin of SARS-CoV-2, testing via RT-PCR, development and/or deployment of treatments, and a big piece on structure and function of the viral Spike protein and binding to human receptors. I imagine I am not alone in hoping that our cyberspace is equipped to handle all of the planned asynchronous and synchronous learning ahead.

I feel I should provide an update on what our campus environment is like. We had beautiful weather on the first day of Spring, but sightings of students making a quick return to pack up and head back home were numerous and sad. Most faculty  and staff are teleworking from home, to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. No undergraduates are allowed to re-engage in any aspect of face to face instruction or research in the department. Many/most  businesses in town are closed. In short, Blacksburg is like most places in the U.S. currently, that are shutting down to flatten the curve. If you are reading this blog and want to know about something in particular, or want to share your own news, please email me at gillaspy@vt.edu. As well, you can always email Ms. Zerita Montgomery at zerita@vt.edu who is my faithful assistant, who is working from home to help us all stay connected.

 

 

 

 

March 14, 2020

 

Welcome to my new blog, that is intended to let friends, alumni, and accepted students of the department of Biochemistry at Virginia Tech learn more about what is happening currently on campus and in the department.

 

It has been 3 days since President Sands announced that we will move to on-line classes after extending our Spring Break for one week. Faculty have mobilized to design ways to achieve this goal. A special challenge is our six credit lab course, BCHM 4124: Laboratory Problems in Biochemistry. This course is designed to give every student professional and hands-on experience in biochemistry. Many of our alumni have used their mastery in this course to obtain employment after graduating from our program. This semesters BCHM 4124 course is taught by a group of highly experienced, senior faculty members, Professors Kennelly, Larson, Li, and Muhkopadhyay. Professor Jim Tokuhisa assists by working with undergraduate assistants to prepare the lab each week. This group met on Thursday to discuss creative ways to meet the challenge on transitioning this course to on-line learning.  I was impressed by the creativity and dedication of this group to our students, and am hopeful that we can deliver a meaningful continuation of this course.  I was also impressed by the great collegiality faculty are engaging in, with several offering to share knowledge, or help set up on-line tools etc. I think I counted four emails yesterday that came to faculty from outside of the department, offering to help us deploy various on-line tools, or provide advice on how to accomplish certain learning goals. I probably should be not be so surprised, as our community has always been known for being collegial and resilient in the face of adversity.

 

In our major’s Biochemistry series our students are now taking BCHM 4116. We were able to divide this class starting in Spring 2018, which allows our students to take this in smaller sections where they have more interactions with their professors. Two newer Collegiate Faculty, Professors Kris Hite and Chevon Thorpe, are teaching this course this semester. These instructors have already been using creative on-line and face to face tools, as described in our recent Facebook posts. Virginia Tech encouraged us to reach out to students this week, and I was particularly impressed with Dr. Hite’s message to his BCHM 4116 students in which he mentioned his own disappointment at not having the chance to get to know the students even better. I also sent an email to all students, letting them know in general, how the department was preparing to help them complete all of their credit hours this semester with on-line classes. It is definitely going to be an adventure.

 

One way the department is going to keep up with student perceptions and issues with this on-line adventure is by gathering feedback each week from our current Biochemistry undergraduate fellow, Astrid. Astrid has agreed to put together some of her own impressions, and we hope to be able to share these widely.  I am hoping her weekly feedback will allow us to continue to be proactive in serving our students. Next week my blog will update you on how things are going, and how ready we are to begin on-line classes!