I looked down at a box-like scientific instrument, called a transilluminator, glowing with ultraviolet light. On the viewing panel was the representative product of my whole semester of study: a single, floppy, square piece of polyacrylamide gel with a few blue-stained bands of proteins on it. An experienced laboratory technician probably runs several of these acrylic gels a week in a process known as SDS-PAGE, but this was the first time I ever did this technique myself. The Fall 2021 semester marked the beginning of my junior year here at the University of Delaware, as well as an exciting part of my course work in molecular biology: upper-level laboratory classes designed for hands-on learning. As insignificant as this gel was in the grand scheme of things, I still remember the accomplishment I felt at that moment and how the career path I had picked out my freshman year finally started to unfold before me.
This moment was made sweeter still due to the fact that the previous year I was at home and entirely online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The online format made it possible for me to finish my sophomore year from the comfort of my own home but at the cost of my sanity. I was lost in a sea of Canvas modules and Zoom squares. I was seeing six-membered carbon rings behind my eyelids as I slept, but the figures on my organic chemistry homework remained murky, and getting questions right felt like a miracle. Anatomical terms slipped through my memory like sand in an hourglass, staying just in time for the test and gone the next moment. Days turned to weeks which turned to months, and then the year ended.
I didn’t feel like a real honors college student. I felt like I was just going through the motions, getting my credits, and moving on. When I applied to UD and the Honors College in what felt like a million years ago, I did so because I loved learning and wanted to become part of the community here. Little did I, or the rest of the world, know that a global pandemic was on the way to deliver a harsh reality check. As the pandemic has dragged on, we all had to learn to adapt and pick up the pieces of our lives. In retrospect, I’ve realized that my sophomore year was simply surviving in a pandemic. When I returned to campus in the Fall of 2021, my junior year was starting to look like living again.
Being in-person helped clear away the fog that had built up over the past year. Walks to class broke up the hours, dedicated classrooms separated topics, and what clarified things the most was the hands-on lab work I got to do. I had read about DNA, bacteria, and proteins in my textbooks, but now I was working with them myself. Each little plastic tube, each flask of chemicals, each piece of equipment reminded me of how much I love to learn about molecular biology, and holding these things in my hands put the complex cellular processes I had learned into perspective. The polyacrylamide gel I had made at the end of the semester was a physical representation of my learning. Not only did it show me that working in a lab is what I want to do as part of my career, but it showed me that I was a real honors college student the whole time. My curiosity and love of learning never left; they were just waiting for the right moment to flourish.