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Finding Ways to Move Forward: How STEM Seniors Adapted to Virtual Theses

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When psychology concentrator Joyce D. Seok ’21 was designing her senior thesis last spring, she planned to invite research participants to her lab to examine changes in their cooperation after various synchronous activities, such as dancing.

In early March, Seok was told to start reimagining her project in the event that the pandemic would lead to restrictions on in-person research in the fall. After being sent home, however, she put her thesis planning on hold.

When it was announced that the fall semester would be held online, Seok struggled to decide whether to resume her studies. After she ultimately decided to enroll, she realized she faced an extra obstacle: conducting research for her senior thesis off campus.

Unable to meet with research subjects in person, she had to learn to code and create an online game in order to collect data for her project — using only her rudimentary knowledge from Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” a class she had taken in her freshman year at the College.

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“So, a lot has changed,” Seok said.

For many Harvard students, engaging in research and writing a senior thesis is an essential part of their undergraduate education. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shift to remote learning, however, many seniors studying in the STEM fields — including Seok — have had to redesign their thesis projects.

Shifting Gears

For Mechanical Engineering concentrator Joseph M. Sanchez ’21, online learning meant he had to change the methods of his thesis experiments — conducting simulations and using computational models rather than making physical prototypes.

This is a common theme among most engineering students, according to Chris J. Lombardo, associate director of undergraduate studies in the School of Engineering of Applied Sciences.

Without access to Harvard facilities and active learning labs this semester, Lombardo noted that normal physical design and prototyping is “just not possible.”

“Typically students were involved in building something. Now, clearly, it is more difficult to build if you don’t have a lab. So it’s mostly focused on the design,” added applied mechanics professor Katia Bertoldi.

On a similar note, typical senior theses in biology would normally involve in-person, experimental wet lab work or field work. Given lab restrictions, however, many biology departments have decided to expand the types of senior thesis projects they will accept.

“We decided as a department to broaden our scope and try to work with undergraduates to help them come up with projects — that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise done as senior honors theses — that would be library-based or meta analyses or based on data that’s already been collected,” said Daniel E. Lieberman ’86, biology professor and co-director of undergraduate studies for the Human Evolutionary Biology department.

The Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology and Integrative Biology concentrations decided to allow postdoctoral or graduate students to finish up in-person lab and field work for some undergraduates who were unable to complete their projects but could analyze data from home.

According to William J. Anderson, the director of undergraduate studies for HDRB, the department will also allow projects to focus primarily on data analysis and literature review.

Given the challenges of working in a lab this semester, some students have decided to take time off from school before continuing with their thesis work.

Integrative Biology concentrator Logan T. Qualls ’22-’23 had planned to start his thesis research this summer in his lab. Instead of adapting his thesis topic to fit an online format, he decided to take a gap year.

Qualls said that he still plans to write a thesis in the future, but noted that the shift in schedule caused a “little bit of stress” about the available time he would have for data collection.

Graham L. Friedman ’21-’22, another Integrative Biology concentrator, also decided to take a gap year.

“It’s kind of unclear what my thesis plans are exactly at this point — they were more clear before COVID [and] I felt like I had a direction,” Friedman said.

Adapting to Changes ‘Out of Your Control’

Many of those who decided to continue with their theses said that the online format has not only affected their projects, but also their motivation levels.

Integrative Biology concentrator Ella T. Frigyik ’21 said she felt more burnout than usual this year.

“Continuing to try and function normally and to push out high quality academic work in a time of a global pandemic, in a massively politically tumultuous time — it’s been quite difficult,” she said.

Seok added that much of her stress comes from having to acknowledge that some challenges cannot be resolved.

“It is very clear from what we speak about at our tutorial meetings with the group that everyone is undoubtedly feeling stressed; everyone undoubtedly feels out of control of their situation,” she said.

Astrophysics concentrator Devin M. Sullivan ’21 said that communicating virtually with advisors and with other thesis writers in the concentration has also been challenging.

“It’s certainly a challenge not having access to be able to drop in on my advisor at unexpected times or even be able to organically interact with my classmates to talk about the writing process and some of the code that we’re working on,” he said.

Frigyik added that communication with lab members has become a lot less spontaneous.

On campus, there were “always people in the lab and I can always ask someone, ‘Oh, where’s this found?’ or ‘What does this step mean?’” she said. “Doing things remotely, I think I’m a lot more tempted to just try and figure things out by myself, because there’s that added barrier of writing an email to someone to ask for help.”

Even seniors that have been granted permission to conduct in-person research for their theses report similar communication problems posed by COVID-19 restrictions in laboratories.

One of those guidelines, according to Neuroscience concentrator Isabella R. Beckett ’21, is that only a limited number of people can be in the lab space at one time.

Elida Kocharian ’21, a joint concentrator in Earth and Planetary Sciences and Environmental Science and Engineering, noted that this means that lab members are restricted in the amount of time they can spend collecting data.

“I seriously had to cut down and find a minimalist way to do everything that I needed to do and to get enough data to write a thesis,” Kocharian said. “But to be honest, I’m just glad that I got to do stuff in the lab at all.”

Beckett added that labs are not meant to be independent work spaces.

“I think something that’s really inefficient is the idea of sharing space, because labs aren’t meant to have only one person doing work at a time. There are multiple benches and bays for a reason,” she said.

Cultivating Virtual Support Systems

Despite the number of hurdles preventing spontaneous communication between lab members, faculty in all departments have been working to support students as they adapt to sudden changes.

Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology Rachelle Gaudet said that the MCB and Chemistry and Physical Biology departments started having group meetings over the summer where students would take turns presenting their projects.

“At first, I think the students were like, ‘Do we really have to do this?’” Gaudet said. “But then I think they really enjoyed it and ended up connecting much more with their classmates over the research that they’re doing.”

Many students have acknowledged the particularly accommodating and flexible nature of various departments and advisors this semester.

Even though concentrations that are mainly quantitative — specifically Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Physics, Astrophysics, and Computer Science — were not as severely affected by the restrictions, they still applied minor changes to grading policies in regards to concentration and honors requirements to help support students.

“Interaction with research advisors is, of course, harder,” Computer Science Professor Stephen N. Chong wrote in an email. “But we are fortunate that most research in Computer Science has been able to continue without access to the physical labs or equipment.”

In addition to academic support, many students said departments and research advisors have been diligent with checking in on students and providing emotional support throughout the thesis process.

“I think naturally for everyone, given the online format, motivation will sort of hit in waves,” MCB concentrator Dhweeja Dasarathy ’21 wrote in an email. “However, the MCB department, as well as my lab, has really worked to provide me with deadlines which has helped a lot with motivations.”

Dasarathy added that weekly individual advising meetings helped her manage her stress levels and use her time more efficiently.

The Psychology department has also worked to encourage seniors working on thesis projects. Seok met with her senior tutorial advisor and other seniors working on their theses every Tuesday this semester.

“It is actually so helpful to know that you are not the only one struggling and you are not the only one feeling inadequate or feeling rushed or feeling kind of helpless because of elements that are out of your control,” Seok said.

“I’m just super thankful to my adviser David Wilner who is just incredibly supportive and understands that it’s a stressful time. [He’s] not just a research advisor in the strictest sense but he’s also always ready to listen to problems that I have with motivation or frustrations,” Sullivan added of the Astrophysics department.

Sullivan also highlighted how remote thesis work has provided him with time management tools he envisions himself using in future endeavors.

“You spend a lot of time self-pacing and self-motivating which has been, I think, good, and is definitely a skill that I will benefit from going forward, hopefully, pursuing more research in the future,” he said.

While the global pandemic has greatly shifted the dynamics of writing senior theses in STEM concentrations this semester, faculty and students said these experiences have simultaneously promoted innovation and growth in students and faculty.

“The process of having to shift remote has sort of spurred creativity and innovation in many different spheres in terms of how we teach things that will probably stick around even when we’re back,” Gaudet said.

“I think it’s made a lot of scientists more creative because you’re not just going to stop doing your science,” Kocharian echoed. “You have to find ways to move forward.”

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