Remote Research a Success for FoS Summer Research Awards

Professor and Associate Dean Leslie Phillmore speaks to the collective effort that made summer research possible in the midst of the global pandemic

Emily Thompson – August 2020

Each year, a number of undergraduate students are awarded the opportunity to gain valuable experience and apply their knowledge through summer research positions. The Faculty of Science grants these awards on a competitive basis, to students who apply to work with supervisors on a diverse range of projects. The program gives students the chance to gain valuable paid work experience, whether in a lab or in the field. But with the increasing concerns for health and safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of this year’s award recipients have been conducting their research remotely. We talked to Dr. Leslie Phillmore, Associate Dean Undergrad Programs Continuity, about the value of having been able to continue research and, as she puts it, impose some predictability in this world of uncertainty.

Leslie Phillmore, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, oversaw the undergraduate summer research awards (USRA’s) as Acting Associate Dean Academic.  The Faculty of Science had granted 87 individual research positions to students when it became clear that the vast majority of research could not be done in-person like in previous years. “We wanted to do everything we could to make sure students would still be able to gain that research experience and ensure they have a job in the summer,” she says. It was the collective effort from students, faculty and supervisors that not only made this a reality, but a success for everyone involved.

The importance of student research


Summer Research Awards provide a supportive and educational environment for students to discover their interests and strengths when it comes to scientific research. This opportunity is a first for many undergraduates, making the summer months even more crucial in informing the types of work students will pursue down the road. The awards are not only a defining experience for students, but for supervisors as well. Project supervisors provide first-hand knowledge and training so that many students will be able to gain the skills necessary to complete their honours projects in the coming years. Over the course of these 16 weeks, both the student and the employer work together to build a foundation for future work, so it was essential that this opportunity remained possible in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. While the format of these positions has changed this summer, Leslie Phillmore explains how remote research is an equally valuable experience.

An online approach


Working from home has quickly become the ‘new norm’ for many, and while this can present obstacles for scientific research, it has also opened new doors. “This has been beneficial because it has allowed supervisors to think of more possible projects that they may not have realized before, that students don’t always get to participate in because they’re only at the front end of things,” says Leslie Phillmore. Researchers are uncovering more opportunities for students from a distance, such as data processing and scientific modeling. A number of undergraduates have also had the chance to work on projects surrounding COVID-19, with one student modeling the spread of the virus. “It’s important to know those skills since they’re an equally valid part of a scientist’s job.”

While remote research has played a crucial role in the continuation of the Summer Research Awards, it can never totally replace the lab experience, says Leslie Phillmore. Many facets of scientific research have to be conducted in person, and the vast majority of work done in wet labs, traditional labs or in the field has been put on pause. With social distancing rules in place, interaction with human subjects has also not been possible, with many researchers unable to open their labs. Now more than ever it is important to push the limits of what we can achieve through remote research.

Staying flexible


When it became evident that research projects could not continue as planned, the Faculty of Science approached supervisors to see if they would be able to find a remote research project for the 87 award recipients. Many supervisors not only made the switch to remote research but came up with additional work opportunities for students who were left without a position. Leslie Phillmore describes this as an incredible experience. “I’m so proud of how the Faculty of Science handled this and how people from both sides stepped up to make this happen for everybody.”

Redefining research


Dr. Ian Hill is a professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Sciences. Ian is among the supervisors who were able to redefine their summer projects to make research possible without lab access. His lab does work on materials for renewable energy production and storage. “We had to change direction quickly, with minimal notice, so that progress could be made during the shutdown,” he says.

Hill’s initial plan was for his USRA student Matthew Coon to learn how to fabricate and organic thin-film solar cells in a lab. “Instead,” he says, “we changed the scope of the project to include computation electronic device modeling to better understand how these devices work and how they change during degradation.” The supervisor was able to relocate a computer as well as the necessary testing electronics to his student’s home, going the extra mile to facilitate remote student research.

“In my previous experience as an undergraduate research student I could ask group members questions and we could quickly overcome obstacles together,” says Matthew. This summer proved to be a unique experience for the USRA recipient who, in spite of the distance, says he was thankful to have been able to overcome this obstacle to have a valuable and productive summer.

“Dr. Hill encouraged us to have frequent meetings to discuss our tasks and support one another. This proved to be the most beneficial thing to me,” he says. “Scientific research is a team effort. COVID-19 may have forced us to stay apart but that doesn't mean we’re working alone.

“Just as much as we had the supervisors step up, all of the students were incredibly patient with us and willing to be flexible on what they did,” says Leslie. For many students, the type of projects they would be working on changed as a result of remote research. “We had one student who was going to work in a wet lab doing molecular analyses, and they ended up switching to a completely different project in physics, and they're now going to continue with that project and supervisor for their honors thesis.”

Donor awards


Many of our student research positions are made possible each year thanks to the generous support of our donors. Donor awards are named awards, specific to certain areas of research. This includes projects with a focus on research topics like oceanography, field work, or marine affairs, to name a few. This year, 24 students were the recipients of awards made possible by donors, and as the summer comes to a close, students are finding creative ways to thank donors and summarize their research.

To give students a chance to present their work, this summer students can participate in a summer research contest, where they can submit a short video of what they learned with their award this summer. Being able to summarize findings and effectively communicate their research is a key part of student’s research experience, says Leslie. “I thought it was important to kind of do something fun to make up for some of what they might have missed, but to just give them an additional chance at doing something that scientists do.” Prizes will be awarded for the top three presentations, as judged by the three Associate Deans within the Faculty of Science.

Moving forward


Through building this newfound understanding of what remote research can accomplish, students have learned countless new skills to carry into the future. “Being able to learn how to interact with someone remotely and develop these skills is going to be valuable beyond a student’s undergraduate degree,” says Leslie Phillmore. “People are going to have to be creative and flexible. And fortunately, scientists are really good at that.”