Life sciences lab courses require far more than textbooks and paper. Prepwork for a lab course may include ordering reagents or components, mixing solutions, arranging or assembling lab equipment, pouring agar plates, mounting samples on slides, calibrating microscopes, writing out protocols, or keeping microbes or animals alive until they’re needed.
At Harvard, a group of just seven people, called the Biology Teaching Labs team, manages the specialized lab classroom spaces and carries out prepwork for lab-based undergraduate life sciences courses taught by the MCB, OEB, and SCRB departments, as well courses at the Extension School, among others. Lab coordinators also consult on curriculum development and act as lab safety officers. In a typical semester, the team supports about 20 different classes, some of which have hundreds of students.Biology Teaching Labs Manager Clark Magnan says the team’s work is varied and essential. “If it supports lab-based instruction and empowers the instructors to provide great education to the students, then yes, in my mind–so long as it’s something we can feasibly do–then yes, it is our job,” he says.
The Biology Teaching Labs team consists of six lab coordinators—Diana Belanger, Andrew Cumming, Jennifer Flygare, Chelsea Gardiner, Collin Johnson, and Alexandra Joseph—and Magnan, who “coordinates the coordinators.” The coordinators are spread out across the BioLabs, Northwest, and Science Center buildings, and lab support duties are largely decided by geography, with each lab coordinator based in a set of classrooms, although sometimes lab coordinators are assigned to classes that align with their academic expertise.
The current Biology Teaching Labs team includes several new recruits who have joined the department since 2020, when four existing team members—Mary Branco, Jack Howard, Steven Keirstead, and Lansing Wagner—took an early retirement. Magnan says the new lab coordinators have “hit the ground running.” Before the semester starts, lab coordinators go through course syllabi to determine the course’s equipment and supply needs, troubleshoot protocols, and assess procedures for safety. Once the semester starts, lab coordinators help the TAs set up supplies and are sometimes present in the room during class to demo techniques or troubleshoot.
While faculty and preceptors lead curriculum development, including choosing labs for the course, lab coordinators typically advise the course instructors on which experiments are feasible and which ones worked well in past semesters. While preceptors have limited-term appointments that end after a few years and teaching assistants (“TAs”) are usually new each semester, lab coordinators often stay in their positions for many years. “We tend to be the ones left behind who hold onto the knowledge,” Magnan says. “So a lot of times, it’s ‘we ran this course last year: here are the parts we know didn’t work; let’s try to find an alternative or tweak it to make it work better for the students or the staff.”
He adds that oftentimes the trickiest part of his job is convincing faculty and instructors to ask the lab coordinators for help when they need it. “Mostly the biggest struggle is getting people [faculty and instructors] to give us more burden,” Magnan says. “There are several of us, we have resources, I’m happy to shuffle people around and have them help each other. If someone needs to pour 10,000 plates in a week, we don’t leave them on their own. We have seven people; we’ll join forces and get it done.”
Courses are highly variable, and the lab coordinator’s responsibilities can be just as varied. “We encourage early and frequent communication from the faculty and instructors,” Magnan says. “They can reach out to their coordinator or to me, and we can discuss the specific ways our staff can best support their course, including typical duties or a chance for my staff to learn a procedure.”
After graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a degree in biotechnology in 2001, he did a brief stint in pharmaceuticals but soon grew frustrated. “I wasn’t comfortable being in the diabetes business…to me, diabetes is a disease, not a business, but that was the nomenclature we were using,” he recalls.
Setting up labs as part of a work study gig had been one of his favorite parts of his undergraduate experience. “Facilitating that hands-on instruction makes the biology real in a way that all the lectures, theoretical and book knowledge, never really worked for me,” Magnan says. “I could do it, and I’d do okay on the test, and then it would just disappear from my head, because I never used it again…Using your hands to actually do that protocol, for me it sticks.” So, he chose to apply to positions in lab management.Magnan joined the Biology Teaching Labs team in 2002. Landing this lab coordinator job at Harvard enabled Magnan to pursue coursework in creative writing at Harvard Extension School, where he eventually met his wife, who is “a much better writer.” Magnan says he always has a novel-in-progress that he doesn’t finish writing and that he and his wife often read each other’s drafts.
After nearly eighteen years on the job, Magnan became manager of the Biology Teaching Labs team in March 2020, just a week before the university shut down due to the pandemic. “I was consistently impressed by his work ethic and problem-solving skills,” says Director of Northwest Undergraduate Laboratories Alain Viel, who has supervised Magnan since he joined MCB. “As director of the undergraduate teaching labs, I strongly supported his promotion as the new manager of the biology teaching labs because I knew that I could count on his sense of organization, and his personal skills to coordinate laboratory sessions for a variety of courses. While the biology teaching lab’s space is rather limited and scattered across several buildings, Clark must coordinate lab sessions for existing courses and find space for new courses. It is not an easy task and Clark is perfect for the job.”
In early 2020, lab coordinators were part of an intense scramble to devise digital alternatives to labs that students could participate in remotely.
“When your mission is to support hands-on lab curriculum, and then nobody’s on campus with their hands, it’s very difficult to do your job,” Magnan says. The team spent that spring creating simulated protocols and recording videos of themselves carrying out those protocols. They also spent a lot of time packing and shipping supplies for students to do labs at home. One microscopy course went so far as to send each student a $2,000 microscope and slides to view. The total shipping costs that semester were “absurd but worth the cost,” Magnan says. “Now back on campus, that course still allows students to take the microscopes out of the lab classroom. The curriculum has permanently changed.”
The teaching labs’ pandemic adjustments didn’t end there. “At the start of the pandemic, the Division of Sciences requisitioned two of the teaching labs in the basement of the Northwest building and gave us only a few days to clear the space for a COVID testing facility that became operational several months later,” Viel says. “Clark coordinated the move with building ops, and had to oversee the distribution of the displaced equipment into the other teaching spaces without losing their functionality.”
In the next semester, the Biology Teaching Labs team had more time to prepare and familiarize themselves with digital resources. Some of those learning media are sticking around now that in-person classes have resumed, but Magnan says he sees online resources as supplements to in-person lab activities, which are essential for students who aim to join research labs. “It’s not enough to read about how to run a PCR and run a gel and get your results,” Magnan says. “That work is a matter of muscle memory and technique.”
“I think it’s important that all of the students have the same access to lab skills,” he adds. “Because some of them will come from a private high school somewhere, and they actually had a lab, and they have a lot of lab skills when they start here as undergrads. Others will come from places, like the school I went to decades ago, where we didn’t even have micropipettes. I had never seen one before.” He sees lab coordinators’ efforts in support of lab-based education as a key part of closing that experience gap. “It’s like any other part of equitable education; that capability gap doesn’t go away on its own,” Magnan says. “You have to meet it with something.”
The lab coordinators will also be involved in a proposed MCB “summer camp” that allows Harvard staff to learn more about the science in the department. Anyone who is interested in participating, who has suggestions on what they’d like to learn about, or who has a preference on a one-day or week-long format where the camp would meet for an hour per day should email Clark Magnan.