Covid-19 chronicles: of biofilms and surviving university in a pandemic

Beyond being a route to acquiring skills and job opportunities, universities serve an even greater role that we often under-appreciate. Beyond being a learning institution, universities are the structured playgrounds where youth can frolic for the last time. Universities are where people forge lasting friendships, adopt life changing principles and ideas, and get into scrapes and shenanigans that become sources of life’s important lessons. Universities are where we collect the often too brief memories of unbridled youth. Where we enter as adolescents and leave as young adults. Where we become.

My fondest memories during undergraduate studies are the many shenanigans that I experienced with my friends. From debate training past midnight to the unsanctioned operations to “raise awareness” to coordinating the establishment of a student resource center and rehearsals for staging a play. These are the collective memories that I tap into when I want to remember my youth-- a time when I had time and freedom to do what I wanted to do (as long as it was free or cheap).

Of course, these fonder memories also gloss over the many struggles of transitioning from adolescence to young adulthood. From the anxiety of juggling newfound independence, responsibilities, finances, and increasingly difficult assignments, to the pain of rejection and my first experience of losing a loved one.

While far from home, these struggles were often more bearable because I could walk over to the next cubicle and talk to a roommate, or call up a friend for a sit down and a coffee. We did not have fancy barista coffee then, just the RM1.80 Nescafé.

University life is nothing if not a communal life. This I re-learned from an old friend who doubled as my debate teammate, co-scriptwriter, study buddy and getaway car driver whom I had the chance to be reacquainted with recently thanks to our shared enthusiasm for science communication. The bond that we shared as college buddies in those years of navigating through campus life and developing our individual identities were not unlike that of microscopic communities forming biofilms.

You might recognize these biofilms as slimy blotches on your bathroom tiles or the gunk you scrape off your teeth. Within this unassuming gunk, lies a complex metropolis of microbes, a community of different members that play various roles, working together to buffer external threats and share limited resources, to build new things that members of their community could benefit from. Like a biofilm of productive microbes, so could a group of college friends, or an active student society work together to give rise not only to self-discovery but discoveries and innovations that shape and change the world. Google, Facebook, Reddit, are just but a few examples of innovation and discovery made within the confines of dorm rooms.

As a lecturer, I realize now more than ever the importance of this communal relationship that students have with each other as part of their ability to learn, grow and cope. 2020 was the first time that the world shifted to emergency distance learning on a global scale to avert dangers of face-to-face interactions in the midst of an unfurling pandemic. This has forced students to remain at home, and deprived many the campus life that we often take for granted. A wise mentor shared with me, the learning that happens during one-hour lectures provides merely outlines and maps. The actual journey takes place outside of lecture halls, in the laboratories and dorms, during extracurricular activities, at cafes or McDonald’s, in the lecture hall corridors or in heated discussions along library foyers. For the underlying success and survival of biofilm architecture is the ability of these microbes to communicate with each other, to progress and to grow.

Students and educators across the country braved a year of online teaching and learning activities with obstacles ranging from unstable internet, ethical loopholes in assessments, to workload and personal challenges of working and studying from home while a historic outbreak rages on. On top of uncertainties of the pandemic, some people deal with added pressures from financial problems, flip-flop last minute decisions, loneliness, depression, or even abuse. All these factors accumulate, and some people may find living day-to-day too overwhelming to bear. Tragically, depression and suicides have spiked during Covid-19, especially among youth.

One significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university students specifically is that they must now cope with all of these pressures while being physically distant from the campus environment and from their friends. While we remain constantly connected online, it is difficult to deny that we have suffered some loss in connection with each other.

Reaching out is one of the best things we can do for each other during this period of isolation. Now, more than ever we need to stay connected and show support—among students, among educators, with one another. While we feel struggle, and see people struggle, we must remind each other and ourselves that we are never alone. Calling for help, requesting for deadline extensions when we feel like we are drowning is not a sign of weakness or a reason to feel shame—especially when we are trying our best. There are people around you who may feel the same, and they may just be waiting for someone to say “I’m struggling. How are you doing?”

It may seem like trivial unnecessities, especially when there is a constant pile of assignments and deadlines chasing us, but setting time to catch up and play together cannot be trivialized. This can range from playing online games together, watching a movie together (Netflix party!), holding a regular book club or spiritual gathering on Meet, doing a voice call, or if reaching out is not possible, we can still try to dedicate some time to reach in and communicate with ourselves through the act of doing something enjoyable and creative.

To my fellow learners and fellow educators, as we continue to soldier through the new year, do take care of yourselves and reach out when you are struggling.

Let’s try our best to be like biofilms in spirit, even if we cannot yet safely do it in the flesh. Let’s try to stick together and communicate with empathy in these times of crisis. For people alone together can perhaps feel a little less lonely, a little less overwhelmed, a little more hopeful, and a whole lot stronger.

Here is to 2021-- to the beginning of vaccines and herd immunity and the beginning of the end of Covid-19. And while we wait for the promise of safety to resume campus life again, to my dear students, take care and hang in there.


Science She Wrote, University life, Undergraduates, Biofilm, Covid-19, Emotional support

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Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah

Dr Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah is senior lecturer in Medical Microbiology at Universiti Sains Malaysia, and an affiliate of Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia. She is active in science communication and infectious disease biomedical research. She was the first female Asian champion of FameLab, the world’s longest running science communication competition, in 2018. The writer’s views are her own.


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