Written by Mary Grace Catapang
Illustration by Sophia Dumlao
Published 14 June 2021
The state of COVID-19 in the Philippines leaves many students with no other option but to continue their studies at home. For Biology and Life Sciences majors, completing their thesis studies—which usually involve field and laboratory work—in the middle of a pandemic is another challenge.
The onset of the pandemic prompted Shaina To (4 BS LfSci) and her research team to shift their thesis topic about lupus, a non-communicable disease, to developing a cost-effective diagnostic kit for COVID-19. Their team aims to make accessible to all Filipinos across the Philippines a COVID-19 testing kit cheaper than RT-PCR but more accurate than the rapid test. For Shaina and her thesis partner Paulo Valencia (4 BS LfSci), the task is to produce the enzymes needed for the test, which requires a wet lab setting.
Around August 2020, their team was still hoping that COVID-19 restrictions would soon be lifted in the following year, allowing them to perform their experiments at the lab on campus. They even started looking for dormitories where they could stay while doing their thesis work. However, as the cases of COVID-19 in the country skyrocketed in early 2021 while vaccine rollout was delayed, gaining access to the campus was not possible. Thus, instead of actually performing the experiment, Shaina and Paulo decided to focus on dry lab only—that is, writing and researching methods of enzyme production without the hands-on lab component.
While some seniors were forced to adapt their thesis to fit an online setting, others were fortunate enough to have chosen a topic that did not necessarily require access to the campus laboratory.
The thesis of Justin Tan (4 BS LfSci) and Carlo Fernandez (4 BS LfSci) focuses on bioinformatics—using Blast2GO, a computer program, to analyze 300 autism-related genes. Despite this, they also faced a number of challenges in performing their methodology.
The computers on campus have paid subscriptions for Blast2GO, but because they were stuck at home, they had to settle with the free version with limited features. Additionally, the laptops they have were not at par with the ideal requirements for heavy data processing. Luckily, Justin has a desktop computer that they were able to use, although it is still not as efficient as the ones in the Bioinformatics lab.
The consecutive typhoons that devastated the country in 2020 also became a huge hindrance because of power interruptions. Ideally, it would only take 10 days to run the program and analyze all genes, but Justin said it took them two months to complete the entire process because of having to re-run the program after every brownout.
Next in line
As the following school year is going to be another online school year, Biology majors (new curriculum) are set to face similar challenges in doing their thesis, especially if COVID-19 protocols and vaccination rate in the country do not improve.
For JB Tibig (3 BS BIO) whose approved thesis proposal involves field and laboratory work, the next school year comes with a lot of uncertainties. His thesis focuses on integrative taxonomy—using both molecular and morphological approach—to fast-track the species discovery of Mayflies, specifically of the Dudgeodes genus. This will include the collection of mayfly samples from Wawa Dam in Rodriguez, Rizal and comparing the DNA and physical characteristics of the mayflies in the lab to identify and describe new species.
If COVID-19 restrictions would prevent him from performing sampling in the field and experiments in the lab, a lot of changes must be made to his original thesis proposal.
JB says another challenge is the lack of hands-on laboratory experience, especially since important subjects for his thesis such as Biochemistry and Ecology Lab were cut short due to the pandemic during his sophomore year, and he has yet to take Cell and Molecular Biology Lab. Currently, all lab classes are being taken online; thus, missing the important component of data collection and learning technical skills in the field or lab. (Watch this HELIX documentary to learn more about online lab classes: bit.ly/HELIXlabathome)
Synergy in adversity
The role of thesis advisers has been crucial in helping students adapt their thesis to the remote setup and addressing the challenges of not having access to the field or lab.
Justin shared how their thesis adviser Dr. Vivian Panes has been very understanding in helping them deal with setbacks, “When we have these thesis meetings, she would always check up on us . . . and really tries to factor in [our situation].”
For Shaina, her thesis adviser Dr. Keith Moore provided them a new perspective despite the difficulties at hand, “One of the things that I really can take away from this experience, being the advisee of Keith, is that research is gonna be uncertain talaga, and it’s okay if you don’t know the end in sight . . . . Now, we think of thesis as a real research project that can be of a contribution to a big goal.”
In preparing for his thesis next year, JB shared how his thesis adviser, Dr. Jhoana Garces and co-adviser, Emmanuel Delocado, Ph.D (cand.) are helping him deal with uncertainty, “In the culture of the Biodiversity Lab, it’s very collaborative and the advisers are hands-on . . . . They’re giving us suggestions on what we can do and how we can improve our methodology. Profs are already foreseeing the specific challenges that we may face once we actually do it.”
With the slow vaccine rollout and continually increasing COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, going back to on-site classes soon seems unlikely. For now, Biology and Life Sciences students have no other option but to do their thesis at home.