It’s been over a year since Northwestern students on the pre-med track walked through the doors of The Technological Institute (Tech) on their way to lab. Many first-years have never even set foot inside a college classroom. Second-, third- and fourth-years now experience lab time through a screen, watching someone carry out experiments for them, wearing the white coats, goggles and glasses they used to don during in-person classes.

During Fall Quarter, Weinberg second-year Grace McDonnell would log onto Zoom once a week for biology lab time. Each time she clicked “Join meeting,” she wished that she was setting up beakers in Tech instead.

“While there are discussion posts online that you can ask questions in, it’s not the same as … running into people you know and then making the decision to study together or meeting people in study rooms if you stay for office hours after lab,” McDonnell says.

Communication third-year Shreya Sriram has taken organic chemistry and biology both in person and online. Following the switch in setting, she and her fellow classmates noticed a shift in their understanding of the material.

“We felt like there was just a general lack of motivation, so it was harder. Biochem is also one of the subjects where you really need to take notes carefully; you need to know the figures, [and] you need to know the structures and molecules,” Sriram says. “It was hard to do all that virtually for sure. A PowerPoint slide is hard to get involved with.”

Many underclassmen, especially first-years who have never experienced a Northwestern lab environment, are anxious about their lack of knowledge of lab protocols and how it will affect their performance in more advanced courses.

Weinberg first-year Sammy Mustafa is in Northwestern’s seven-year BA/MD program, Honors Program in Medical Education (HPME). Much of his time this year has been spent chipping away at his core pre-med classes. While he acknowledges that Northwestern professors are doing all they can to convey the foundational information in these courses, he believes that his experience has been negatively impacted by the transition to online learning.

An illustration of a stethoscope with a computer mouse attached to one end

Weinberg first-year Sammy Mustafa

“Being in person would help you stay more engaged and actually have you focus on your work, because right now, I feel like I kind of doze off during classes,” Mustafa says. “Sometimes I don’t really focus enough. I have to make up for that outside of class, and that’s just more time on my part.”

He has even stronger feelings when it comes to online lab courses. In a normal year, labs would have prepared students like Mustafa for their summer research and lab work with professors. Without in-person lab opportunities, Mustafa will have to learn proper procedures before the summer begins.

“In-person and online experiences are completely different things,” Mustafa says. “While [professors] do have the recordings of procedures, it doesn’t prepare you at all.”

McDonnell, who has experienced labs both in person and online, agrees with Mustafa. She recognizes there is a difference between the two, especially when it comes to important skills required for research experience.

“I definitely prefer doing the [labs] in person ... I think being in person has given me a level of comfort that online didn’t really give me,” she says. “I feel like online is so much more about analyzing data, which is great, but it didn’t give me basic lab skills that I’m hoping to acquire in order to do research outside of class.”

The isolating conditions of the pandemic have also contributed to Mustafa’s appreciation of his classmates, especially those who are in his HPME group. They often study together and go to each other for emotional support when struggling with the course material. He says many of the upperclassmen he’s come into contact with are surprised at how close this freshmen group is, as their own groups were never as tight-knit.

“I feel like the community of students is the best part of the program so far. Coming into this quarter, it was hard to make friends,” Mustafa says. “I always had them to lean on as friends but also as classmates who are in the same classes and situations I’m in. They’re all really collaborative, and I think that helps.”

The pandemic has emphasized the importance of medical professionals and has motivated many students to work hard to prepare for medical school. However, it has also somewhat impeded aspiring medical students’ ability to properly prepare for these roles.

Sriram spent all of this March and April studying to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). She felt the lack of focus she had during her online biochemistry course in her second year negatively impacted how she was forced to spend her time preparing.

An illustration of a stethoscope with a computer mouse attached to one end

Weinberg second-year Grace McDonnell

“That screwed me over for the MCAT because biochem is a huge part of the MCAT, and I basically had to relearn all of it,” Sriram says.

Despite the inherent difficulties and resulting dissatisfaction that comes with online pre-med courses, students feel that some modifications should be retained following the University’s transition to post-pandemic life. Both Mustafa and McDonell appreciated the around-the-clock accessibility of online learning.

“I do wish all lectures in the future would be recorded because I just think that it’s made the experience so much easier. If I don’t understand something, I can go back and rewatch it a bunch of times,” McDonnell says.

Sriram also found the online format to be advantageous for some of her premed courses. For example, biology and physics worked better online because of her professors’ use of PowerPoint slides, which were available for students to use as well.

“The way that we learned in bio and physics [pre-pandemic] was like, we would go to class, and we would record the lecture on our phone in voice memos, and then we would listen to the lecture afterwards,” she says.

In addition to academic benefits, some students found the pandemic assisted them with their medical career plans. Sriram found that her time spent in quarantine with her parents helped narrow the focus of her future medical aspirations. Sriram’s mother has had numerous ear and throat issues throughout her life. During the pandemic, she had a severe case of strep throat that turned into an ear infection, and now she has tinnitus. Consistently hearing about her mother’s pain led Sriram to research ear, nose and throat (ENT) topics online. She eventually felt motivated to buy an otoscope off of Amazon and take a look at her mother’s ears herself.

“I don’t think I really wanted to go into ENT during the pandemic, but throughout my pure exposure to all of this with my mother, I’m learning about it. And my major is CSD [communication sciences and disorders], so that’s about the auditory and speech pathways,” Sriram says. “Learning about that and putting it together with spending so much time around my mom was really impactful in terms of me deciding that I want to pursue ENT.”

Students like Sriram are not deterred by the pandemic-related obstacles and look forward to the return of in-person lectures and lab. For others, the pandemic has only strengthened their resolve.

“We’ve seen a lot of pressure and stress on medical professionals. That’s made me really take a hard look at the profession. This is going to be a field where I’m going to be challenged constantly, and [I’m] just making sure that I want to rise to the challenge,” McDonnell says. “And I would like to rise to that challenge. Seeing [the pandemic] makes me want to be someone who goes out and helps.”