Katelin Harlow '21
Feature Stories 2020: Katelin Harlow ’21
Katelin Harlow ’21

Gained inside knowledge tracking COVID-19 in her biology course

Uncovering research breakthroughs, continuously asking questions, and seeking more answers define the culture at UMass Dartmouth. Curiosity comes alive when students work alongside faculty on real-world research projects, exploring topics that have an impact on our community and beyond.

This year, Katelin Harlow ’21 got the ultimate hands-on, real-life experience with her classmates as they tracked COVID-19 as a class project in the Ecology of Infectious Disease course. Led by associate professor of biology Dr. Erin Bromage, students followed the progression of the virus as it emerged from China and spread across the globe at the start of the spring semester in January 2020. Their real-time research led to an early understanding of the severity of the virus and how it would affect our lives. Each day brought new information about the genetics of the virus, mutation trends, and biocontrol strategies like quarantining.

The students created a display of their findings in the hallway outside the biology department. “Each time we learned new information, we posted it up there,” Harlow said. “We explained it from our perspective in simple terms, which made it easier  for others to understand.”

In March, Harlow opened the email announcing that courses would be delivered remotely for the remainder of the spring semester at UMassD. 

She was not surprised.

“From our research, we knew it was going to get worse, and that we needed to isolate to control the spread,” she said. “Schools would be the first to close. We even discussed how busy grocery stores would be with people stockpiling items.”

Tracking COVID wall
The collection of research students compiled was on display outside Bromage's classroom.

Bromage’s classroom project, informed by his research on the evolution of the immune system and the immunological mechanisms responsible for protection from infectious disease, presented his students a real-world look at the topics they are studying. This inspired the creation of his world-famous blog on COVID-19.

“Students in all of my classes from January to May were following the science related to this emerging pathogen,” Bromage said. “It was interesting to watch the class grow from approaching this as an academic exercise to reality. They were on the frontline of learning about COVID-19 from day one.”

Bromage wrote the blog to share explanations about COVID-19 with friends and family to help them understand how the virus spreads and what steps can be taken to mitigate the risk. His post on how breathing and talking spread particles in the air in common locations like restaurants, churches, and offices gained nearly 20 million views and made him a fixture on nightly national news shows. He has also provided valuable guidance to many businesses on safe reopening practices.

Turning on the evening news and seeing her professor on the television was surreal for Harlow. “We would send him screen shots of his appearances in our discussion board. It felt like we were famous too!”

Harlow gained a new perspective on the application of coursework through Bromage’s class. “I feel so fortunate to have this inside knowledge about a topic that made a huge impact on us,” she said.

Every experience Harlow has been afforded at UMassD has provided an opportunity to learn more about how she wants to shape her career, including a spectacular study abroad journey in Italy, where she took literature courses. She is also grateful for the financial support from generous donors that make those experiences happen. “It’s comforting to know that people are here to give us the chance to do what we’ve always dreamed of doing,” she said.

Harlow is a recipient of the Mary Louise Walsh Scholarship and the Jesse Frizzell Memorial Scholarship. Dr. Christine Frizzell, former director of the counseling center at UMassD, established her scholarship in memory of her son. She is honored to play a role in the futures of UMassD students.

“Education changes everything,” said Frizzell. “When a student is able to fulfill their dreams through higher education, the trajectory of their life changes, future generations of a family change. It can change the fabric of a society.

“Being able to provide some support each year for hard-working, talented biology and chemistry students as a way of remembering my son, who was also a biology and chemistry student, is a joy and a privilege.”