In early spring, 12 students from the University of Chicago packed their bags and headed to Woods Hole for an immersive scientific experience at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).
While the pandemic kept the majority of UChicago’s classes online, those participating in the MBL Spring Quarter came together for an action-packed course schedule that included building their own microscopes, leading research experiments, and even going out to sea for a multi-day sampling trip.
“I was excited to have an experience that was really hands-on versus solely lecture based,” said Grace Lehto, who participated as a first-year UChicago student. “It’s been the ideal in-person experience for me.”
Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the Marine Biological Laboratory is a nonprofit research institution affiliated with the University of Chicago. Last year, the institution launched its first-ever “Autumn Quarter at MBL” program—inviting a dozen UChicago undergraduates to learn in the field and lab.
With an emphasis on doing, not just hearing, these learning opportunities continued in the spring, when students were offered an MBL spin on the University of Chicago’s Physics III course. “Optics, Waves, and Modern Physics” at the MBL was a three-week module with lectures in the morning and a hands-on lab course in the afternoons. The course was led by MBL senior scientist Rudolf Oldenbourg and Prof. Patrick La Rivière and Asst. Prof. Ken Bader of UChicago.
“We gave the course an MBL flavor by centering the laboratory around student-driven, exploration-based optics and microscopy modules,” said La Rivière, a professor of radiology and a fellow at MBL. “After mastering the basics of optics and microscope construction, the students developed a new module using polarized light that we will integrate into the course in future years.”
During the module, students helped to assemble an optical rail microscope—the same type of kits used in many of MBL’s Advanced Research Training Courses. But in a new twist, they added polarizing light filters.
“It’s really cool that we’re all at different levels,” said Isabel O’Malley-Krohn, who participated as a third-year undergraduate. “At UChicago, third-years take courses with third-years, second-years with second-years. But here we’re all at different levels. …There’s no expectations about what you do and don’t know.”