Opinion: many students have had their courses disrupted by Covid-19, but those studying science have reasons to be optimistic about the future

By Declan McKenna, Ulster University

In 1665, a deadly outbreak of bubonic plague forced Cambridge University to close and students were unable to attend the campus for over a year. Among them, one young science student was forced to return to his home in the country, but the break from his studies did not mean he switched off his brain. As the story goes, he was walking in his garden one day when he noticed an apple falling from a tree, an observation that helped him refine his thoughts into scientific ideas that would result in the Law of Universal Gravitation.

The student, of course, was Isaac Newton and the time he spent isolated at home would subsequently become known as his annus mirabilis. During this 'year of wonders', he made extraordinary breakthroughs on revolutionary scientific concepts related to maths and optics, as well as gravity.

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In 2020, this anecdote will have some resonance for university students whose courses have also been disrupted by another deadly disease. But maybe, as Newton himself found, this disruption to normality is an opportunity to think differently and deeply about their studies.

Many students may be apprehensive about a return to a new academic year, which will bring many changes in module delivery and learning practices. Those starting university for the first time will, for the time being, miss out the exciting transition from secondary education to student life on campus.

Although online work and e-learning platforms will be the primary mode of education for most, it is worth remembering that this approach will be a valuable learning experience in itself, upskilling students in the use of various digital technologies and fostering an independent, self-directed attitude to studying. This is important because remote working skills are likely to become increasingly utilised in a post-Covid world, so these distance-learning arrangements will help develop these. Even with revised modes of delivery, lecturers will be working hard to ensure their studies are still relevant and rewarding, giving every learner the chance to perform to their full potential.

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Students studying degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects have particular cause to be optimistic about the future. If the global response to the pandemic has shown anything, it is the importance of science and STEM-related expertise in today's world.

Across healthcare, industry and academic sectors, the continuing contribution of scientific specialists has been invaluable in facing this global health crisis. Within days of its appearance, the genome of the new virus had been sequenced and identified.

Within weeks, the spread of the virus had been tracked and testing had been initiated. Within months, results of clinical trials were available and promising advances on vaccine development had been made. This astonishingly fast progress has been enormously dependent on scientists, medical experts and healthcare specialists reacting to the unexpected crisis by combining their scientific skills and knowledge to fight the deadly outbreak.

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Despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, those studying STEM-related courses can be positive about their career prospects after graduation. Within the School of Biomedical Sciences at Ulster University, the widespread need for science graduates in society is something we have long realised.

We know that employers in a range of professional sectors highly value the attributes that our science degrees establish in students, such as attention to detail, problem-solving, critical-thinking, data-analysis, digital literacy and clear communication of complex ideas. As a result, graduates who can demonstrate these qualities are highly employable in the science industry and beyond. It was no surprise that many of our staff and students were quickly recruited to fulfil essential roles in Covid-19 healthcare, testing and research teams as part of the pandemic response in Northern Ireland.

However, even before the pandemic, science graduates from our school were very well-placed to secure employment in the life sciences industry, which has grown dramatically in Northern Ireland, Ireland and across the world. Events of recent months have only confirmed that this sector will continue to flourish, as remarkable discoveries in genetics, biotechnology, diagnostics and medicine are utilised to tackle on-going health challenges in our population.

Perhaps, like Newton, someone will have even developed a new universal scientific theory during self-isolation

Naturally, there will be increased focus on coronavirus-related projects to find out more about Covid-19 and its effects, which will create many opportunities for students interested in this area. But there are also increasing synergies between life sciences and other STEM areas, including engineering, robotics and computer science, which are driving improvements in wider healthcare and treatment of disease. These advances will mean many openings for graduates with scientific skills and knowledge to secure employment and forge careers that have the potential make a real difference in tomorrow's world.

As we all look towards life after Covid-19, many of us will feel like Newton's apple, having been brought down to earth with a bump. But maybe, as Newton did, we can take some positivity from a situation of gravity. Indeed, all students preparing for a new academic year should take time to congratulate themselves on the resilience and versatility they have already shown as they adapted their studies, work and everyday lives to cope with the challenges of lockdown.

Perhaps, like Newton, someone will have even developed a new universal scientific theory during self-isolation. At the very least, every student should be encouraged to reflect upon their individual pandemic experiences to identify new skills and motivations which can help them realise their ambitions in this brave new world.

Dr Declan McKenna is a senior lecturer in the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute at Ulster University.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ