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Undergraduates in lockdown: Sustaining research projects with CUBE Home Labs and chatShaala

Meena Kharatmal, Nagarjuna G & Kiran Yadav

The pandemic and the consequent lockdown have disrupted classes and access to labs at educational institutions across the country. However, for the undergraduate students of the CUBE program, the lockdown has been a boon. Instead of losing hope, these students have set a precedent by finding creative ways to continue working and learning along with their peers by developing the CUBE home labs and the CUBE chatShaala.

The CUBE Home Labs and chatShaala
The CUBE Home Labs and chatShaala  (Photo: Abhijith Vinod, Aswathy Suresh, authors)

The CUBE (Collaboratively Understanding Biology Education) program at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) is a project-based science education program. It is designed to cultivate a scientific attitude within students in a collaborative and conversational learning environment. Formerly called the Collaborative Undergraduate Biology Education program, though most of its participants are undergraduate students and teachers, school students and teachers also join as and when feasible. The program is now eight years old and has gathered participants from several parts of the country in this period. It runs through its centres in Ahmedabad, Asansol, Assam, Bengaluru, Bhind, Chandigarh, Dehradun, Delhi, Faridabad, Goa, Gurgaon, Gwalior, Hyderabad, Indore, Jharkhand, Kanpur, Kochi, Kolanchery, Kolkata, Kozhikode, Meerut, Moradabad, Mumbai, Mysore, Nellore, Patna, Raigad, Ranchi, Sapekhati, Silchar, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur and Visakhapatnam. 

In this program, the participants work collaboratively on simple experiments using model organisms, like fruit flies, earthworms, snails, Moina, butterflies, Hydra, rotifers, C. elegans, and E. coli, to observe their features and study biological phenomena, like olfaction, circadian rhythms, regeneration, hypoxia, biodiversity, etc. Students then discuss their observations with their peers, in the lab and on social media. 

With the lockdown, the labs became inaccessible to the students. However, this did not discourage them from continuing their engagements. This article is based on our conversation with six undergraduate students who with their mentors and other students from across the country are dedicatedly working towards a shared learning experience and making effective use of the lockdown time. We take a look at their new normal’ mode of learning through the CUBE home labs and the CUBE chatShaala.

CUBE Home Labs 

The CUBE home labs feature frugal methods to culture and study different model organisms, right in students’ homes using locally available and easily accessible items, e.g., transparent plastic or glass bottles, tissue papers, water, milk, fruits, vegetables, soil, leaf litter, etc. (Figure A). Even the model organisms are obtained from local surroundings. The students’ mantra, as Saida Sayyed put it, is, whatever things we need, we break it down to what is its function and can it be replaced by things available at home”.

The mantra helped! Within the first few weeks of the lockdown, students were able to trap native fruit flies, take soil samples for nematodes, etc. from their localities. For culturing and isolating the soil nematodes from soil samples, students used boiled potato slices and a drop of curd/​milk in place of 2% agar and bacteria. Students (Aswathy Suresh among others) collaboratively worked out a substitute for the standard fruit fly medium, called TRSV, using tomato, rava (sooji/​semolina), sugar and vinegar, which are easily available ingredients. They used a pressure cooker as an autoclave.

Figure A: Images of the CUBE Home Labs. (1) A tomato used as a bait for attracting fruit flies. (2) Media bottles containing the TSRV medium for fruit flies. (3) Moina culture bottles. (4) Isolation of nematodes from soil samples using a boiled potato as the medium. (5) Soil nematodes growing on potatoes (6) A vermipit layered with gravel, soil and vegetable waste, and having ~15 earthworms. (7) Earthworm culture bottle with a punctured cap to allow proper aeration, holes drilled in the bottom to collect vermiwash. (8) Hydra culture in a glass, with about 7 – 8 Hydra kept near a window and fed with Moina once a week. [Photo: (1−2) Aswathy Suresh, (3) Drishtant Kawale, (4) Anshu Kadam, (5) Batul Pipewala, (6−8) Abhijith Vinod]

An exciting development was the use of a mobile phone camera in place of a microscope. The non-access to microscopes had been one of the major concerns for the students in the initial weeks of the lockdown. However, they overcame this obstacle by using a drop of water over the camera lens of their mobile phones and using a magnifying glass as an external lens to further magnify the images. Just basics of microscopy (physics involved!) and common sense, and it happened!” said student Drishtant Kawale. Students were able to identify the features of wings, proboscis, etc., of fruit flies using this hack as shown in Figure B.

Figure B: Images of fruit fly wings as seen from a mobile camera. (1) Image shows a labelled wing. (2) Images taken under different conditions. [Photo: Aswathy Suresh]

Today students are sustaining their cultures with daily maintenance (housekeeping) work. The Moina culture is given drops of milk every day and its population has now increased to 400! Tomatoes are used as bait each day for studying the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. Using the homemade medium, the CUBE centres in Mumbai, Patna, Kerala and Kolkata are maintaining their fruit fly stocks successfully. 

Some students are already conducting their experiments in addition to maintaining their culture of model organisms. For example, a group of students have progressed in their observations of circadian rhythms in fruit flies and compared these observations (e.g., graphs of day and night cycle in fruit flies) with their peers from other parts of the country (Figure C). Some students are working on studying the effects of hypoxia (low-oxygen condition) on Moina by setting up control and experimental cultures (though faced with challenges discussed below). To be honest, this lockdown has been a boon to the CUBE Community. We have witnessed the upcoming of the CUBE Home Lab Movement”, says Kawale.


Though productive, managing a CUBE home lab has not been without challenges. As students used boiled potatoes as media for nematodes, their challenge was to maintain them for a long time without any fungal growth. Observing nematodes just 1 mm long without microscopes was another challenge. However, students Lydia Mathew and Anshu Kadam explained how this challenge was resolved by using the full zoom feature of a mobile camera — an idea that came from discussions with other students. In hypoxia experiments with Moina, students found it difficult to estimate the amount of dissolved oxygen in the dechlorinated water used for culturing Moina — a task that requires chemicals and relevant glassware that were not accessible to the students due to the closure of shops. Although these challenges have hindered some of their wet lab work, students are seeing this as an opportunity to study the literature and design experiments through online discussions. 

CUBE chatShaala

The CUBE program is engaging students with feedback mechanisms even during the lockdown. In addition to the home labs, about 30 students from across the country and their mentors meet daily (for about 3 hours) for discussions in an online forum called CUBE chatShaala. The forum runs on the BigBlueButton webinar platform (a free and open-source software) hosted on HBCSE’s server. 

The chatShaala is a conversational learning mode where students talk about their work progress, challenges, goof-ups, designing experiments, model organisms, and so on. Several hot topics in biochemistry, molecular biology, developmental biology and neuroscience get touched upon during these discussions, including the biology of the COVID-19 outbreak and its causative agent SARS-CoV‑2 (Figure C). 

Figure C: Virtual whiteboard discussions in CUBE chatShaala. (1) Discussion on circadian rhythms in fruit flies. (2) Discussion related to the novel coronavirus. [Photo: authors]

By engaging in the CUBE chatShaala, students have even developed an e‑book on fruit flies based on their discussions using the platform. Engagement with peers [and] mentors on CUBE chatShaala has been extensive, exciting and very helpful”, said student Yash Sheregare. Interested people can join the CUBE chatShaala and participate in the discussions, and can follow the blogs related to CUBE Chat. A profile of the CUBE chatShaala is shown in Figure D.

CUBE Home Labs-D
Figure D: Profile of the CUBE chatShaala. (1) Students participating online. (2) Map showing CUBE centres. (3) Graph depicting increasing participation by the students on the platform during the lockdown. [Photo: authors]

Advice to Peers 

Based on their experiences, students of the CUBE home labs and chatShaala have some advice for their peers whose lab-based engagements have got disrupted due to the pandemic and who were not able to develop their home labs. They urge them to utilize their time by studying the literature, which would help them immensely when they conduct experiments later. They reiterate the importance of finding alternatives, or jugaads’. Collaboration is the main key!” says Mathew, explaining how collaborations can help in data collection, developing ideas, research questions and more. 

Community Engagement

In addition to their research activities, students have also been working towards educating people living in slums about the pandemic, the infection, the importance of frequently washing hands with soap, wearing masks, myths about the disease, etc. Students are keenly attending webinars and talking to mentors for developing their scientific skills.

Parting Thoughts

The undergraduate students have developed and sustained an exceptional research platform in the form of CUBE home labs, and integrated it with the CUBE chatShaala, for not only working on their experiments but also keeping their model organisms alive! Lockdown has helped us in improving ourselves in our research work. In fact, we learned that nothing can stop our research! We have alternatives for everything. We can do research wherever we are. Possibilities are there around us. We need to get there”, said Mathew. This conversation with the undergraduates is evidence of their new normal’ mode of learning.