Undergraduate Research during COVID-19

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Lauren Luna

Campus Beat Reporter

According to U.S. News and World Report, UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) hosts around a dozen national research institutes on its campus. A majority of the research projects conducted by these institutes have had to adapt to the unique demands of the pandemic and remote operation to carry on with their work. 

Of course, the research process for all departments varies. Some researchers spend hours in the lab reviewing bacteria samples under a microscope, others travel hundreds of miles to explore ancient ruins abroad. While the research process itself is not universal, many research techniques already have been or can be converted into an online format.

UCSB’s Office of Research has drafted a six-step plan to gradually phase in-person research back on campus. As of Jan. 4, we have been in the fourth stage of this progression, and 25 percent of on-site research has been restored with about 750 employees working on campus. Departments that use field research methods, which include several departments in both the humanities and social sciences, have recently been able to resume their work as local California sites have been granted permission for observation by academic research committees. 

However, according to the six-step plan, not all undergraduate research assistants will fully return to campus in the current stage of the ramp-up. With the exception of a few undergraduate research assistants that have essential roles in critical research projects, most undergraduate researchers will be allowed back on campus little by little through the fourth, fifth, and sixth stages. 

“Undergraduates are included in Stages 1, 2, or 3 of the ramp-up in the very rare cases in which they are irreplaceable for essential maintenance,” stated the UCSB Office of Research on their website. “We will consider proposals for small numbers of undergraduates to begin research in Stage 4, such as those with summer fellowships (e.g. CCS, Worster, etc.).”

For the time being, undergraduate research assistants have primarily conducted their work remotely. Most undergraduate students seeking research opportunities right now have turned to the Faculty Research Assistance Program directory to work on projects from home. This directory keeps students updated with ongoing projects, some of which have offered remote research opportunities for students looking to get newly involved.

One professor, Alex Lukas, a new hire at UCSB’s art department, has not been halted by the pandemic and is continuing his work on a ten-year research project aimed at developing the ‘Zine Cataloging project. This initiative aims to make ‘zines, a tactile and mass-produced art medium that captures both fictional and real narratives, accessible for a wider audience via the internet. 

According to Lukas, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the goal of this project an “object of necessity,” as online communication has become one of the only mediums through which everyone can stay connected. Lukas’s team consists of three undergraduate art majors, which he encourages to be creative and pushes them to delve into their own thematic interests to help with the advancement of the project.

“With the pandemic, the ability to handle a ‘zine project is difficult,” explained Lukas in an interview with The Bottom Line. “But there is a silver lining in thinking about how we can best disseminate this material for a wider audience,” he continued.

Dr. Linda Adler-Kassner, a research lead for UCSB’s Center for Innovative Teaching, Research, and Learning (CITRAL), is also operating remotely and is currently pioneering a project studying how learning and teaching experiences have changed with COVID-19. Specifically, the study looks at how both physical and mental “placement” affects the academic experience. Because COVID-19 has disrupted the physical and mental security of many students, the study begs to ask how placement influences learning when placement itself is not entirely certain. 

Dr. Adler-Kassner says that though COVID-19 has introduced a number of challenges for research in terms of execution and communication, it has also created new opportunities. The outcomes of COVID-19 reflect a larger evolution in society that scientists are eager to study.

“If there’s anything that COVID-19 gives us, it’s the opportunity to ask lots of questions,” explained Adler-Kassner when conversing with The Bottom Line. “The implications of what we’re learning about right now will contribute to the things we do even when we’re back on campus,” she added.

For other research initiatives, COVID-19 has given the opportunity to sample new demographics that may have been harder to reach pre-pandemic. Dr. Erika Felix’s, of the psychology and brain sciences department, current project on Gen-Z Youth’s Responses to the pandemic has now been able to survey students from Puerto Rico, providing an even wider range of data to analyze. The current remote avenues of COVID-19 have also given a new sense of legitimacy to online research, as all business right now can only be conducted online.

“Now that [online research] has become more established, I think it will become the new standard,” Dr. Felix explained to The Bottom Line. “Researchers won’t look down on it anymore because they’ve all been in the same boat.”

With the demand of students wanting to enter graduate school and the modern workforce requiring more practical experience under the belt, the interest in research opportunities among graduates is not fading away any time soon. However, during quarantine and remote instruction, COVID-19 has reduced the access to research opportunities that undergraduate students typically enjoy during the school year.

For students trying to gain research experience during the pandemic, Adler-Kassner, Lukas, and Felix encourage students to apply broadly with a strong sense of both enthusiasm and flexibility. As students can help with things like literature reviews, summaries, and project assembly, the possibilities for undergraduates to join research initiatives still exist in these troubling times.