A screenshot of a remote video meeting with 20 participants shown in individual frames

Despite pandemic, faculty-mentored research continues with virtual student symposium

Monday, September 28, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, forcing the rapid shift to remote teaching and learning for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester, Northeastern Illinois University’s Student Center for Science Engagement had just put out a call to the faculty for its Undergraduate Summer Research and Professional Training Program.

With the determination that in-person research no longer was feasible, the Center altered its call, asking faculty—who suddenly also were contending with a seismic shift to remote teaching—to rework their proposals. That call was answered, with the submission and execution of 18 projects from the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Earth Science, Environmental Science, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology.

The annual program, which provides students the opportunity to work closely with Northeastern faculty members on five- or 10-week summer research experiences, was a roaring success. In total, 43 undergraduate students, 23 faculty members, three high school student volunteers, two undergraduate mentors and one graduate student mentor came together to produce safe summer research experiences. In addition, some projects collaborated with external organizations such as the Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“For the research projects themselves, it’s a credit to the faculty that we were able to go to them to say we want to run this remotely,” Student Center for Science Engagement (SCSE) Director Kenneth Vogelsonger said. “It’s a credit to them that the vast majority of them redid their plans and came up with ways to provide students with this meaningful research experience.”

All of that summer work by both faculty members and students leads up to another tradition that will now take place remotely—the 12th Annual SCSE Student Research Symposium, which will operate through the Whova app on Oct. 16. Students will present their research on topics ranging from correlations between COVID-19 and air pollution to bacteria that form fruiting bodies in starving conditions.

“Even in collaborative research, students spend a significant amount of time doing work that is much more open-ended in nature than many typical University course assignments. As a result, it provides an opportunity for creativity and innovation in terms of problem-solving that most students do not experience when doing their course assignments,” said Assistant Professor of Computer Science Rachel Trana, who led a project on cyberbullying identification in social media image memes. “Research projects like these help students learn how to forge a path forward when there is no clear-cut answer to a question, which is a scenario that commonly occurs in real-world situations—both job-related and personal.”

Trana’s project was part of a continued collaborative effort of ongoing research to create current datasets and develop algorithms to identify malicious and biased text, images and other media forms that occur on social media sites. The goals of the research are to ultimately prevent the bullying from occurring, provide individuals who have been impacted with access to resources in real time, and educate individuals about the effects of their online interactions.

Computer Science major Joanna Vaklin, one of four undergraduate students who worked with Trana and will present individual projects during the symposium, will share her research on labeling the sentiment of slang terminology.

“We met on a weekly basis on Zoom, and that was our main meeting space. It was definitely challenging at first because Zoom can be pretty exhausting, but after a while it worked really well,” said Vaklin, who is on track to graduate in May 2021. “Overall, I think the program was very organized and thought out, so it relieved a lot of concerns about it being completely remote. I actually enjoyed how I saved a lot of time on commuting to instead focus on my research.”

For their efforts on this research, each student earned a $3,000 stipend. The program is supported through a number of funding sources, including but not limited to SCSE internal funds, the Illinois Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, and the Title III program through the U.S. Department of Education. It’s all facilitated by the SCSE, a Northeastern resource that offers students research opportunities to expand their résumés and career preparedness, as well as examine various critical issues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

During the program, the SCSE provided students with weekly workshops based on professional development and creating a scientific presentations. About halfway through the remote program, the nation became gripped in a series of protests over police accountability and social justice issues, and the SCSE shifted to focus on anti-racism through a partnership with Northeastern’s Angelina Pedroso Center for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs.

“Despite the constraints during COVID-19, I had a wonderful experience completing research and was able to connect with different students, attend webinars and attend workshops that aided in my academic and professional growth,” said Kimberly Nu-Tall, who expects to earn her second bachelor’s degree in Biology in 2022. “What I liked most about the summer research were the workshops on social injustice. As one of the few African American students doing research this summer, it gave others insight on the injustices people of color face in academia and everyday life.”

Nu-Tall was one of five Northeastern undergraduate students and one Lake Forest High School student who worked with Associate Professor of Biology Cindy Voisine to investigate cellular changes in nerve cells that express TDP-43, a protein linked to the fatal neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Her team analyzed a dataset of 11,000 genes to determine which genes were altered in TDP-43-expressing worms compared to wild-type worms.

“Initially, I was hesitant about switching my summer program from a hands-on research experience to a virtual one,” Voisine said. “At that time, there were so many unknowns, but I decided to move forward.”

Nu-Tall and the other students joined Voisine twice a week for virtual lab meetings, presenting their progress to each other. In addition, Voisine’s team had three joint worm meetings with College of Graduate Studies and Research Dean Michael Stern’s research team and one lab meeting with German collaborators.

“With the COVID-19 constraints, new opportunities for my 2020 summer students became available,” Voisine said. “Since research conferences were canceled, leading scientists in my field established free weekly seminars that we could attend. With a virtual experience, the Voisine lab group was able to interact with researchers from all over the world. Despite all the uncertainties, the 2020 summer research experience went very well. I attribute this success to the interactive and engaged students that agreed to be part of this unique experience.”