Aftermath of McKinly fire forces biology labs to relocate, improvise instruction style

Bio Lab
Mitchell Patterson/THE REVIEW
Above: A machine in ISE, called an autoclave, used for sterilization of biological materials.


Although the university’s Department of Biological Sciences suffered a downgrade after last summer’s fire in McKinly Laboratory, it is managing to maintain educational and research standards in the temporary accommodations.

The fire, which was sparked during basement renovations and spread throughout the building via the ventilation systems, caused severe damage to the biology laboratories just weeks before the 2017 fall semester began. Much of the biology faculty and staff were initially moved to Quaesita Drake Hall during the fall, but are currently working out of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (ISE) Laboratory for the spring semester.

According to Tisa Della-Volpe, the Department of Biological Sciences’ lab coordinator, leaving McKinly after the fire caused serious logistical issues for the faculty and staff. The fire occurred after many professors had finalized their semester lab schedules, creating a frenzy to secure class time and space in Drake Hall.

Because the temporary facilities were not intended to host biology labs, some classes are forced to enroll too many students. This overcrowding, according to Della-Volpe, translates into less opportunity for students to receive individual attention from professors and teaching assistants.

“We were given schedules that were really difficult to accommodate,” Della-Volpe said. “It was tough at first. We all share labs now. It’s very crowded. There was a lab here [in ISE] that was pretty advanced, but there were 24 students in it. That’s 24 students sharing microscopes and other equipment. They have to stand, which is unusual for microbiology students.”

McKinly was specifically designed to be an efficient and technologically sophisticated place for the biology department to work and teach. Outside of McKinly, many professors now have more crowded and difficult schedules. One microbiology class had to share lab space with a biochemistry class.

“McKinly was so efficient and so well-equipped for what we were doing,” Della-Volpe said. “We had a stockroom three times the size of the one here. Plenty of storage and a few labrooms specifically to prepare cultures of bacteria for student use.”

Professor Carlton Cooper, a cancer researcher and virologist teaching microbiology, claims that McKinly’s greatest asset was the classroom dedicated to the biology department.
“Those labs in McKinly were exclusively ours, 24/7,” Cooper said. “It’s something you don’t appreciate until it’s gone. Nowadays, I’m here until ten or later setting up or disassembling labs for class the next day. That’s time I missing when I could do other research.”

In lieu of actual lab space during the transition after after the fire, some biology classes had to be reorganized with a “dry curriculum” which relies on teaching with books and papers instead of hands-on experience. Della-Volpe worries that students are receiving a less valuable education than what was offered prior to the fire.

“We have a lot of different students coming into many different majors,” Della-Volpe said. “Having that hands-on lab education is great. Without it, with just textbooks, you lose some of that depth. It’s not as deep. However, there’s been no drop in grades. The students are still performing just as well.”

Without dedicated lab spaces, it has become more consequential for students who miss lab periods.

“Experiments run week-to-week,” Cooper said. “They all build on each other. If my student misses a class, and life happens, you know, they might miss a class, then it’s tough to get a make-up period for them. They have to make up the lab, or they’ll fall behind. I have to get a make-up period when I can, and sometimes they’re late at night, or early in the morning. It’s tough for my students, sometimes, to accommodate that.”

Della-Volpe said that, despite the downgrade from McKinly, students and faculty still uphold the same high standard of safety. The university’s Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) retains a great deal of regulatory oversight on lab safety. Della-Volpe, who has worked at the university for over 40 years, said EHS has always remained effective in maintaining oversight because many of its employees are biology experts and former university faculty.

“We have a ton of safety redundancies in place in the labs,” Della-Volpe said. “Nothing is unsafe. I want to emphasize that. [EHS ] is a really big organization and they have lots of oversight on what goes on here.”

As per EHS guidelines, countertops and workspaces are required to be wiped with a powerful disinfectant before and after usage. The prep room in ISE also has an autoclave, a large oven-like container designed to heat and sterilize things. Waste materials are sealed in multiple plastic bags before being taken to a special storage room, and disposal crews collect the bags up daily.

“Biological materials are disposed of according to State of Delaware regulations,” Krista Murray, assistant director and biosafety officer at EHS, said. “The [biological materials] are ultimately incinerated, which is an approved destruction method.”

Drake Hall and ISE may be less well-equipped than McKinly, but students are still drilled on rigorous lab safety procedures. They are taught aseptic techniques, which are professional practices designed to minimize contamination or infection, while handling bacteria, chemicals or other potentially hazardous materials.

“There is absolutely no problem with safety at all,” Della-Volpe said. “In fact, some of our procedures are designed to make the more nervous students totally relaxed.”

The faculty uses attenuated cultures of bacteria, meaning that the bacteria, even dangerous species like E. coli, are rendered uninfectious and pure for lab use. The Department of Biological Sciences purchases these cultures from the Carolina Biological Supply, a private provider of scientific education materials. This not only bolsters classroom safety, Cooper said, but it also makes it easier to control all the variables in an experiment.

The first and second floors of McKinly remain uncertified by city health inspectors. The time it will take to totally repair the lab is unclear. Cooper looks forward to eventually returning to McKinly, where he believes he can better educate his students.

“It’s gonna be great to get back there,” Cooper said. “Having a dedicated space for microbiology again will make it so much easier, so much easier, to serve those 250 plus students we have enrolled.”

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