The evolution of biosciences at Manchester

Laura Jimenez Burney is Genetics with Industrial Experience student at The University of Manchester and has seen first-hand how the University, and more specifically her course, has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past nine months. From the initial response of the course, to how it’s been since September, Laura discusses below every aspect of the response and offers advice to students who are considering joining us next September…

Genetics before COVID

I was really enjoying the course before COVID struck and felt like I had a steady balance between uni work and my social life. Just before the initial lockdown, I was in talks about getting some work experience done over the summer in a lab at The University of Exeter, however this was unfortunately made impossible due to the pandemic.

When COVID started to become a big issue in the UK, we started to receive emails from the University telling us to self-isolate if we had recently been to certain locations. Soon after, we were then told that lectures for modules with over 100 students would be suspended, but that labs would continue as normal. However, just a few hours after receiving that email, we then received one informing us that everything was cancelled and that all university buildings were to shut. It was time to go home.

Online learning

Although the workload has increased significantly from last year, I have enjoyed online learning due to the fact that it has allowed me to manage my time more efficiently. Having the lectures available on-demand gives me the freedom to organise my week in the way I want to. I now don’t have to worry about whether a lecture is going to clash with any particular meeting I may have for a group project or a tutorial. It has given me a lot of flexibility in my day-to-day life.

Like everything though, it has its ups and downs. Obviously, the social aspect of going into a lecture theatre with 500 other students and being able to interact with them and the lecturer face to face is gone. Access to the library has also been difficult due to the fact that you have to book at least four days in advance in order to get a space.

However, lecturers have been putting in an effort this semester to have both live lectures on Zoom, where they can interact with students through the live polls and allow students to ask questions. We have also had weekly Q&A workshops, where you can ask your lecturers anything about the content that has been taught in their respective modules. I feel like this has become especially helpful for people who are quite shy or who get quite anxious if they have to talk in a room full of people; the zoom chat room is perfect to ask any question you have that you maybe wouldn’t dare to ask surrounded by 500 other students.

Genetics this academic year

I am lucky enough to do a course where I am required to go into uni about once every two weeks for my Experimental Design Module. Experience in the lab is so crucial for biology students, so the faculty has done its best to organise the lab sessions in a socially distanced way where everyone has been able to get involved and carry out essential lab techniques that are going to be so useful to us in the future.

For other modules, lectures have been a mix of pre-recorded and live lectures along with the workshops I mentioned before. We have had deadlines due for essays, group posters and assessments. For the group posters, it has been very easy and efficient having group calls on Zoom and talking about how we are going to carry out our project. Collaborative programmes such as Google Docs and Google Slides have been perfect for getting work done virtually as a group, so I have been using those a lot.

Tutorials would have been face-to-face as they are only groups of ten students and the tutor, but due to increasing covid cases, they were also moved online very early in the semester. Same goes for meetings with academic advisors and dissertation supervisors, everything has been on Zoom, which has worked quite well for me and has not caused any inconveniences, but hopefully, by next semester, we can start having these meetings face-to-face. With the new vaccine in circulation, I’m hopeful that we will be able to slowly and progressively have more face-face interaction at university in general.

Advice to offer holders

You have to make the most of the years you get at university because they are so precious. Don’t let this bizarre situation ruin this experience because there is still so much you can make out of it. Thanks to the technology of today, we are given so many freedoms in terms of socialising and making new friends, so a positive mentality and a good support system will help you get through a lot of it.

I also want to mention that loneliness has been a very common feeling during this time, especially if you are doing all of your work in your room surrounded by the same four walls every day, so my advice is to get together with your flatmates/housemates and watch a movie every night or cook a meal together. Joining a society or a sport is also a very good idea as you get to meet new people and do fun virtual socials! The social aspect of university is just as valuable as the academic aspect, in my opinion, and having some sort of support like that is so important for your wellbeing.

Talking of which, the student support office has provided a lot of well-being advice and activities such as counselling workshops and exam support for anyone who feels like they need it. The counselling service is always there to listen, but people should not be discouraged to turn to someone more accessible such as their tutor and personal advisor. Basically, there are plenty of people who will help you should you need it while you’re at The University of Manchester!

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