In the Time of COVID: Undergrad Researchers, Mentors Use Technology, Ingenuity and Grit

Initiated in 2014, Utah State University’s Native American Summer Mentorship Program was created with the express purpose of bringing scholars together to experience hands-on research in state-of-the-art labs and enabling them to get to know USU faculty, from a broad range of disciplines, one-on-one. With such emphasis on physically gathering, networking and advanced laboratory training, how could program organizers pull off a pandemic-induced spatially distanced event with success?

When there’s a will, there’s a way, says 2020 NASMP lead facilitator Elizabeth Simpson, a Biology/Ecology doctoral student, who, with fellow facilitators and doctoral students Megen Kepas and Hannah Wilson, laid the groundwork for this year’s 15 participants. While students in the four-week program, which began in mid-May, missed the opportunity to stay on USU’s Logan campus and visit its labs, she says they still got to meet faculty members, albeit remotely, and participate in research – at home. 

“Our faculty members and graduate students helping with the program rallied with creative online trainings and experiences to engage this year’s participants, all of whom were USU Blanding students residing in the Four Corners area of southeast Utah and northeast Arizona,” Simpson says.

“It was kind of a bummer (when we found out we wouldn’t be traveling to Logan,)” says Lavander Shortman, a NASMP scholar, who participated in mechanical engineering, agricultural pharmacology and synthetic biology projects. “But the experience taught all of us that, virtually, we can still do a program together in person or over technology.”

NASMP mentors from varied USU colleges crafted research kits, with equipment and instructions, that were sent to students at their homes. The mentors got acquainted with students over video calls and email.

Simpson says, at first, students experienced some challenges interacting online with USU personnel, but gradually became more comfortable with the experience.

“In some cases, the remote communication may have even helped remove some of the awkwardness and shyness undergrads experience, when first meeting a faculty member,” she says. “Getting used to new people and experiences, whatever the circumstances, can be intimidating for everyone.”

Ice broken, NASMP participants and their mentors got down to business.

Corey Tartsah, an Oklahoma native who resides in Kayenta, Arizona, participated in mathematical modeling with Department of Mathematics and Statistics faculty member Brynja Kohler.

“We learned how mathematical modeling was applied to an outbreak of lead poisoning,” says Tartsah, an aspiring veterinarian. “It was eye-opening, as I never thought about using math to approach a public health problem affecting people so badly. I started to see math change in front of my eyes.”

Participant Nichole Butler of Chilchinbeto, Arizona, received a Foldscope, a compact, paper microscope, in a research kit for a project conducted with USU Biological Engineering professor David Britt and Biology professor Anne Anderson. The undergrad, who plans to move to Logan to complete a bachelor’s degree, captured amazingly detailed images from soil samples collected in her backyard with the simple microscope.

“One of the coolest images was a butterfly leg, because it just showed us so much, including little hairs and the structure of the leg,” Butler says. “And I’m so glad my sisters were exploring it with me.”

Simpson says involvement by family members and friends in NASMP participants’ projects was an added and unexpected bonus with the program’s remote delivery.

“A number of students got their family members involved in working on projects and listening to presentations from faculty mentors,” she says. “This brings the hands-on nature of the program to a wider audience and gave the students’ families a chance to engage with research and science.”

Jaynee Chee, who resides Montezuma Creek, Utah, invited her younger brother to listen to the program’s presentations with her, as they learned about using Arduino for coding, as well as viewing chemistry demonstrations involving carbon dioxide separation and water splitting.

“Despite the fact that I didn’t get to go to the Logan campus, I got to spend time with my family,” Chee says.

Each NASMP gathering concludes with a student-led poster session and the 2020 gathering was not exception – except the session was held online via Twitter @USU_NASMP, #NASMP2020 (at USU_NASMP, hashtag NASMP2020.) The posters remain posted on Twitter for viewing, comments and questions.

“Twitter is inherently set up to connect people and ideas,” Simpson says. “Our students did a great job with the program and with their posters. We invite everyone to share in what our participants learned and celebrate their accomplishments. They’re a testament to what can be accomplished in undergraduate learning, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.”