Dr. Phil Mixter shows Robin Minietta microbes
during the on-campus lab. (Photo by Brian Maki)

The pathogens didn’t worry Robin Minietta. Her professor, Dr. Phil Mixter, had said that “immunocompetent” people are safe doing lab work for his Introductory Microbiology course.

 
Minietta could also handle the jet lag, which was brutal after the online student’s flight from Shanghai.
 
Her only fear? “It’s intimidating,” she said, “that we’re going to do this much in one weekend.”
 
The plan was for the 11 students taking the online course to visit campus April 18-19 and complete the equivalent of 30 hours of lab work in what Mixter called a “full-pull experience.”
That meant labs from 9-5 on Saturday, and 10-2 on Sunday.
 
“We incubate some microbes that have to grow overnight. Staphylococci, streptococci, E. coli, normal throat bacteria,” said Mixter, who credited lab supervisor Kirstin Malm for preparing supplies and cultures. “We give students the dexterities and the smells and the other parts of the experience they can’t get from a textbook.”
 
The Molecular Biosciences 101 students had already learned a lot at home. They’d researched toilet-bowl cleansers, studied hand-washing, interviewed people who work with microbes. They’d even done a little lab work “with tasty results,” Mixter said.
 
“We have them bake bread,” he said. “Fermentation by yeast is a microbial process. But we can’t ship them a plate full of staphylococci and say, ‘Don’t let your kid play with this. Don’t let your dog eat this.’ ”
 
Those with immunity issues needn’t worry, Mixter said. Many of the microbes are commonly encountered every day.  It’s not like student would need a haz-mat suit. “Gloves. Maybe a mask. That would be sufficient.”
 
Mixter offers the lab once a semester. Most students come from Washington State. Minietta’s trip from Shanghai may have set a distance record. She and her family left the U.S. a decade ago when her husband got a job managing a manufacturing plant in China. She finished a master’s degree in liberal studies, wrote a book on life in Hong Kong, then “decided on nursing out of the blue.”
 
“Online classes are brilliant for people like me,” said Minietta, who enrolled in Distance Degree Programs as a nondegree-seeking student. Degree-seeking students who have met their prerequisites are never required to come to campus, and MBios 101 is DDP’s only online course with an on-campus component. Minietta combined her trip with visits to family in the area, and a chemistry final at Idaho State University.
 
The highlight of her WSU lab experience, she said, was seeing her DNA, isolated from her cheek cells. “I kept looking at the rubbery looking squiggles of DNA and shaking my head in wonder.”
 
A low point, other than the foggy jet-lag moments, was seeing the microbes swabbed from her throat. “Disgusting,” she said. “I know we have billions of microbes living in and on us, but seeing them in action on a Petri dish was a very vivid experience.”
 
This summer, Minietta and her children are moving to Boise, where she plans on enrolling in ISU’s accelerated nursing program. Her husband will commute once a month from China.
 
“We’re a strong family,” she said, “and have never hesitated to grab at an opportunity. Who knows where it will all end up?”