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Explore Viruses


Take a closer look at some resources for you to explore viruses in deeper, more open-ended ways

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Full Microscopic magic rock or miniscule warrior?

Microscopic magic rock or miniscule warrior?

Full Microscopic magic rock or miniscule warrior?

Close your eyes and picture something alive. Perhaps you’re envisioning a person or a pet dog? Now, picture something that is not alive. Maybe, this time you’re thinking of a rock or a lightbulb.

Seems obvious which of your conjured images are alive and which are not alive, right?

Can you describe what makes something alive?

Will those characteristics of being alive still apply to a barnacle, a flower, or the E.coli that gives you food poisoning?

It turns out that describing the characteristics of living things requires us to dig a bit deeper than behaviors and features of an organism. As scientists we need to really think about the processes that all living things can do. However, even once we’ve done that, we can still run into trouble. This is because even scientists don’t all agree on what behaviors making something alive.

Are viruses alive?

Review some fundamental characteristics of living things. Challenge yourself to apply them to viruses (or not!). Then, think about why it even matters to classify a virus as a living thing or an inanimate object.

What makes something alive? What must it be able to do? Write down a list of the most essential elements. Check your list by seeing if it works to describe a wide variety of living things and excludes a wide variety of non-living things.

Describe viruses based on your set of criteria. Does this suggest they are alive or not?

What about a parasite? Or an obligate symbiote (an animal that MUST live in connection with another)?

Now let’s learn a bit more about viruses…

Relatively recently, scientists were surprised to discover viruses so large they are the same size as some bacteria. Might this large size give them the features of other living things? Read this article about giant viruses and see what you think!

Scientists are also puzzled by viruses that infect other viruses. Can a nonliving thing invade another nonliving thing or should we reframe what we think of as being alive? Read more about virophage and make up your own mind.

Did anything in the articles change your mind? Do you want to modify your list of what makes something alive or adjust your understanding of viruses in some way?

Full Microscopic magic rock or miniscule warrior?
Full Using Open Data to Code an Interactive COVID-19 Map

Using Open Data to Code an Interactive COVID-19 Map

Full Using Open Data to Code an Interactive COVID-19 Map

Open Data and You

The “Open Data” movement — or the call for making valuable information free and accessible to anyone without restriction or limitation — enables everyday citizens to innovate in order to serve the needs of their communities. However, as we tinker and explore with public data sets, particularly when creating visuals to communicate these data, we must uphold stringent best practices to avoid spreading misinformation or promoting misinterpretation (learn more about this in Data Visualization and Covid-19). In the next sections, Rockefeller graduate student Caitlin Gilbert will take you through the steps of finding and preparing open COVID-19 data to make a thematic map showing virus spread in NYC using Shiny, a package in the free software environment R.

Here is what you will need to build your own dataviz app:

A Computer

The suggested minimum requirements are:

  • At least 1GB of RAM (8GB preferred)
  • At least 10GB of hard drive space

An Internet Connection

You only need a connection to download the files and software package,  so having a connection is(temporarily) required. Fun tip: Test your internet speed with an internet speed test!


Shiny combines the computational power of R with the interactivity of the modern web so you can easily build interactive web apps straight from R. Learn more about Shiny here. Don’t worry, R is a free software environment so Shiny doesn’t cost a thing!


Caitlin has prepared a few files to make this easier for you:


It will take a lot of trial and error to get to where you want to be! Be kind to yourself and take your time to fail and learn!

Full Using Open Data to Code an Interactive COVID-19 Map
Full Viral RNA Hunters

Viral RNA Hunters

Full Viral RNA Hunters

Viral Hunters Overview

In this activity, we’ll hunt down viral RNAs in samples of lung tissue from COVID-19 patients and figure out which genes in the SARS-CoV-2 genome they came from. Then we’ll make graphs of the data and add in information about the patients to see if there are relationships between clinical features of the patients and the viral RNAs that were found. Your materials and the tools in our toolbox are all digital for this activity.

Here are the files & web-based tools required for hunting viral RNA:.

RNA Sequence Files

We have isolated the SARS-CoV-2 RNAs found in patient lung tissue. View this file here.

UCSC Genome Browser

The University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Genomics Institute has a terrific web-based tool to explore genomes, called the Genome Browser.

Data Collection Template

Make a copy of the data collection template here!

Data Tracker

Make a copy of your own data tracking sheet here!

Full Viral RNA Hunters
Full Rank-A-Virus Activity

Rank-A-Virus Activity

Full Rank-A-Virus Activity

Imagine the Olympics are soon-approaching, and it suddenly becomes clear that there is a new viral outbreak… 

How likely would you be to cancel the Olympics for each of the viruses described? 

Discuss the situation as a group and place your stickers on the chart paper. Responses will range from least severe (NO WORRY/NBD) at the bottom of the chart to most severe (CANCEL NOW) at the top of the chart.

Virus Ranking Supply Kit

photo credit: Scott Rudd Photography

Virus Info Cards

Print on 5×7 cardstock for durability or simply print the PDF with 2 pages/sheet of paper and cut in half. Each group should have one card for each virus.

Virus Stickers

We printed these on clear stickers similar to this, but any sticker, label, or even magnet could work. These could also be printed on paper and moved up or down on a meter stick with a butterfly clip, or moved up and down a strip of paper with a paperclip.

Large paper or similar for arranging the rankings

We used a large sheet from a roll of paper or a sheet of poster paper, but as mentioned above any surface that allows for students to arrange the viruses in an order will work.

Full Rank-A-Virus Activity

Created by

Disan Davis Disan Davis avatar

Disan is a scientist and educator striving to share her curiosity and love of science with others
Research Associate for the STEM PUSH Network
University of Pittsburgh

Caryn Hale Caryn Hale avatar

Caryn is molecular biologist with an unhealthy obsession with RNA and makes her science real through her teaching
Research Associate, Darnell Laboratory
The Rockefeller University

Caitlin Gilbert Caitlin Gilbert avatar

Rockefeller Graduate Fellow
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