The 2020 Office of Undergraduate Research Summer Research Symposium may have looked a little different this year, but it made major strides in exploring and adapting to the digital space.

This virtual conference, organized by the Office of Undergraduate Research in the Division of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, welcomed 67 presenters from across five research programs and independent research spaces.

Presenters represented Virginia Tech as well as other universities, creating a greater community for researchers and participants. The presenters, who included undergraduate students and several teachers from the region, embraced the virtual environment and helped pioneer a new format of delivering this conference for future participants.

According to Keri Swaby, director of undergraduate research, “We were so pleased with the high level of creativity, professionalism and engagement that the participants exhibited during this new conference format. Of course we missed the energy and buzz of the face-to-face interaction, but the format allowed for polished recorded presentations and the ability for presenters and attendees to explore and interact with more of their fellow presenters. The discussion boards were alive with questions and deep exchanges on the topics, something that is hard to recreate in a traditional poster session.”  

Adaptability was a key skill that most of the students identified and learned through this experience. “I didn't have a chance to naturally present like I would have done in front of a group of people,” said Anna Cheema, a Virginia Tech criminology major participating in the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program (MAOP), “so I made sure to record myself with audio and video to make it as personable as possible.”

A virtual presentation may be a daunting task for some, but Cheema illustrated important strategies to overcome the challenges of presenting in a digital format. “Record [yourself] when giving a presentation. I feel as if it makes the virtual experience more real and helps us put a face to the research,” Cheema said. 

Cheema had a rewarding experience by revealing topics addressed to the public, especially within the Hokie community. By studying information from archive collections and photographs, she unearthed and disseminated important historical stories from Virginia Tech women of color. Throughout her research, she also uncovered oral interviews, using primary sources from Virginia Tech Special Collections and copies of The Bugle.

Cheema organized her thoughts into five different categories: The First Six Black Women as Students, Cultural Safe Houses, Black Women as Essential Workers, The Asian and LatinX Experience, and Celebrating Black Beauty. She found that there were many women of color who broke barriers by simply attending Virginia Tech. Her research included telling the stories of women like Carmen Venegas, Yvonne Rohran Tung, Linda Adams, and many more.

Cheema said, “One of my overall goals in my career (as an activist who is interested in public policy reform) is to educate the general public and communities about our history of women of color and Black women. Educating people about ‘hidden’ histories will help create a more equitable community for women of color. We need to acknowledge and recognize the past to understand the struggles of the marginalized groups we have today.” The virtual nature of the summer 2020 research conference allowed for a wide reach for her research to be seen and absorbed by many to spark conversations about diversity and inclusion in the Virginia Tech community.

According to Kameron Cummings, a Virginia Tech psychology major participating in the MAOP program, virtual formats of learning will continue to evolve throughout the academic year and have varying effects on adolescents and at-risk children. A virtual learning experience will be a major obstacle to overcome during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cummings’ research investigates how remote learning experiences will alter or change the academic experience for youths with mental health or learning disabilities. Results from her study suggest that youth with IEP/504 plans and psychological disorders are vulnerable in remote learning environments.

Cummings recommends that schools should provide more support for these at-risk youth during the 2020-21 school year. The relevance of this topic is more important than ever as schools and institutions navigate reopening initiatives. Cummings’ research was a learning experience in itself in learning how to present this topic virtually.  

“The biggest takeaway I learned through this [research] experience was enhancing my professional development by communicating with my mentor, listening to presentations, talking with other interns, and participating in meetings," said Cummings. She mentioned that she now has more agency in running and analyzing data tests and gathering the necessary information remotely.  

Similar to Cummings’ takeaways, Renee Napoliello, a biology major from the College of William & Mary participating in the VT REEL- Securing Our Food program, found comparable observations in gathering and interpreting research data. Her experience this summer with research has inspired her to consider pursuing graduate schools.

“I've met so many different professionals in my field, and it's made me realize how many options there are for future research,” said Napoliello. “There are many skills my mentors have helped me build on these past few months, from professional, like grad school applications and resume building, to scientific, like data analysis and presentation creation.”  

Napoliello’s research was The Effect of Genetic Modification of the Phosphate Starvation Response in Arabidopsis thaliana on Response to Excess Iron. Scientific research related to plants and biochemistry, such as what Napoliello has conducted and presented this summer, requires a researcher to be flexible and proactive.

Her advice to fellow student-researchers is to “be flexible and aware that you will have to modify some of your activities, be it from changing the way you present your information to changing how you can collect your data for your experiment. And be proactive, an important aspect of research is the relationships you build with peers and mentors. It's hard to do that online, so be sure to reach out to others!”

Written by Abigail Mercatoris-Morrison