The Remarkable Transformation of UF Microbiology Labs for UF Online Students

GAINESVILLE, FL – As universities and colleges around the world worked tirelessly to transition classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one UF Online program faced a unique challenge. While the majority of its coursework was already offered online, the unique Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology & Cell Science from the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) still required an on-campus set of in-person immersion labs each summer.

This meant that even UF Online students had to pivot quickly into a new normal. Thankfully, their UF instructors were already looking out for them, their learning, and their safety amidst the pandemic. Dr. Monika Oli, a UF microbiology & cell science professor, was charged with reinventing her summer labs for UF Online students and later in the summer for her UF residential students. Along with Department Chair Dr. Eric Triplett, she immediately got to work. Dr. Oli knew that she faced an especially challenging task for her UF Online students, given that these summer immersion labs were traditionally their only opportunity to engage with her incredibly important (and expensive!) lab equipment, learn important bench lab techniques, and really engage with her, her team, and with one another. How would she bring them another great lab experience this summer given the new normal facing us all? Dr. Oli rose to the challenge.

Only Weeks to Prepare

Fortunately for her students, Dr. Oli already had extensive experience in applying her knowledge of microbiology to teaching and learning and, in particular, for undergraduates learning in an online environment. Dr. Oli is a trailblazer at UF for her work in online teaching. With support from instructional designers at the UF Center for Online Innovation and Production, Dr. Oli has transformed the UF microbiology and cell science courses into quality online formats for UF Online students over many semesters. Her challenge now was reinventing a lab experience – shifting it from on-campus to at-home.

With only six weeks to prepare, Dr. Oli didn’t think twice about whether the labs could transition into a new format and design. She started designing the new lab experiences and compiling her vision for what would be their customized lab equipment kits. First and foremost, her focus was on ensuring the same top-notch academic quality for new, remote labs so that each student had an opportunity for the summer lab experience they deserved from her program.

Major Facets of the Lab Reinvention

“Our online microbiology majors mean a lot to us, and we wanted to give them a really great experience,” Dr. Oli said. To do this, Dr. Oli first started by adjusting the lab curriculum to better suit the online learning format. For her, this adjustment was simple. She wrote and created the immersion labs herself.

“A lot of these things we do in the lab, we were able to translate into [the students’] virtual world, whether it’s home kits, virtual labs, discussions, or other activities,“ she said.

Next, Dr. Oli worked with her team to compile and design the equipment, materials, and even the lab coats that would comprise a summer lab kit for each and every UF Online student. It was important to the microbiology department that the students would be able to conduct experiments at their homes as part of the labs. Dr. Oli, fellow faculty, and departmental staff stepped up and joined together to purchase new equipment, compile individual kit contents, package the kits, and ultimately ship 45 kits containing equipment valued at over $1,000. They shipped them across the United States and to students in Peru and Spain. The custom UF microbiology kits for UF Online students contained microscopes, pipettes, mini PCR machines, incubators, scales, pH meters and more. Each kit was also designed so that the contents would be shipped back and reused by the department. This keeps costs low for students and maximizes the use of the equipment with future students.

It was certainly a team effort. Dr. Oli and colleagues shared and celebrated this momentous undertaking via Facebook with photos of their tireless efforts.

The revamped curriculum, activities, and the custom-designed kits were major components of the lab reinvention, but there was still more to focus on. Dr. Oli revisited the temporal design of the lab, shifting it from an intense, two-week period of lab activities to more spread out opportunities for learning. These would mesh better in a remote format that took place in a student’s home with everything else going on. These important details really mattered to her students.

Finally, Dr. Oli, made sure to incorporate many opportunities for student feedback during the lab as she debuted this new format. Dr. Oli always loves to ask the students their opinions on how they should be evaluated and what works best for them. Since this is the first time an immersion lab is being taught online at UF, “you want them to feel part of the team rather than just telling them,” Dr. Oli said.

A Positive Experience for Students and Teaching Assistants

Dr. Oli received positive feedback from her students during and after they completed their summer Microbiology Labs in this transformed format. In fact, many students expressed great appreciation for Dr. Oli and her team’s efforts at meeting those students where they were – and specifically where they needed to remain during the pandemic. Many students simply could not have participated this summer were it not for Dr. Oli’s efforts to offer the lab remotely. Her students with young children out of school, deployed spouses, full-time jobs, those living outside of the United States, and others would simply not have been able to attend in person in May 2020 given the pandemic, school closures, and more.

One student, Mariano Aguilar, lives in Lima, Peru. He expressed just how much Dr. Oli’s effort meant to him. “I still cannot fathom how Dr. Oli and her team managed to transform a physical lab course into such a dynamic and effective online lab course,” Mariano said. Between the lab kits, synchronous group labs, and pre-recorded videos showing how to do each experiment, Mariano was very impressed. He added that “I gained valuable knowledge and learned many lab skills that will be extremely helpful,” as his goal is to apply for graduate school at Oxford University.

Additionally, Dr. Oli received great feedback from her UF Online teaching assistants, who also had to pivot, working to support and engage students in the new remote format as TAs. Dariel Liakhovetski was a UF Online microbiology and cell science senior and TA for Dr. Oli’s reinvented summer remote lab.

“I consider myself incredibly privileged to have been in a position where I was able to work closely with the CALS faculty members and students to facilitate a successful transition to online learning,” he said. “There couldn’t be a more important time to learn about microbiology than now.”

Read Dariel’s story here.

Future Microbiology Labs for UF Online Students

Looking ahead, Dr. Oli remains focused on meeting the needs of her UF Online microbiology students, whether that involves convening labs on campus in future summers or in online, transformative formats. However, after this summer experience, she’s mindful that not all students can come to campus even in a typical summer term for a variety of reasons. She is now exploring the possibility of having an online option available for students who can’t travel to Gainesville for a future summer lab immersion experience.

Dr. Oli is also influencing her fellow faculty. The lessons from Dr. Oli’s leadership and experience were shared across the State University System of Florida with fellow faculty who were also undertaking their own local innovations for summer STEM labs. Across Florida’s public four-year universities, faculty reinvented over 100 labs for the summer of 2020. Dr. Oli’s custom kits, revamped formats, and student feedback were unique in the system and celebrated by her colleagues. Meeting unprecedented circumstances with little time to spare and earning great results, she is an example of how UF faculty rise to the challenge. It is certainly great to be a Florida Gator!


The UF Microbiology and Cell Science major from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences via UF Online prepares students for a variety of careers in the sciences, including medical professions. Courses include topics such as molecular genetics, cell biology, virology, immunology, and more. Discover what our Microbiology and Cell Science major can do for you by visiting the UF Online degree page.


The University of Florida, ranked No. 7 in the list of top 10 best public universities by U.S. News & World Report, launched UF Online in January 2014. UF Online was ranked No. 4 in the 2020 rankings for the best online programs in the country by U.S. News. Students can select from over 20 majors across a variety of disciplines as well as nine minors and work with a dedicated academic advisor to design their own academic pathway. Degree programs are continually being added. Visit to learn more.