Students Present Original Research During Home-based Virtual Symposium

computer virtual learning

Dickinson's All-Sciences Symposium and inaugural Community Engagement Showcase Goes Online

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

As the campus closed in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the fates of Dickinson’s annual All-Sciences Symposium and inaugural Community Engagement Showcase didn’t look good. Both are on-campus events, bringing the campus community together to learn about recent student research. To move the presentations online, students would need to learn new tools and coordinate with fellow research-team members across time zones—all while adjusting to the many new normals a global pandemic can bring.

“We didn’t want to add to the stresses students were already experiencing,” says planning committee member Associate Professor of Biology Scott Boback, “but we also didn’t want to take away the chance for students who worked hard for months—and, in some cases, years—and really wanted to share their work with the Dickinson community.”  So the committee provided an online framework for students to securely present their original research and removed the mandatory requirement for all students to take part.

Imagine their delight when no less than 27 student research groups eagerly volunteered to learn the new skills they’d need to join in.

“We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to develop our research presentation skills and clarify the story our data told,” says Abby Kaija ’21 (biology), who conducted student-faculty research along with fellow biology majors Kat Parise '20 and Julia Thulander '20 on the impacts of ocean acidification due to global warming. “I’m grateful the departments worked so hard to continue to symposium.”

Getting up to speed

As in previous years, the April 27 event highlighted student research in the natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics & computer science and quantitative economics. This year, the symposium also included community-based research in the social sciences, educational studies, environmental studies, international business & management, Italian and Spanish.

Students coordinated with their teammates virtually—sometimes, across several time zones—to convert their traditional poster presentations to digital-friendly formats, like PowerPoint presentations. Planning committee member Katelin Moul, computing specialist, and Janice Wiss, academic department coordinator for chemistry and biology, delivered remote training on the Microsoft Teams app, and Moul led a practice session in the days leading up to the symposium so students could work out any bugs. Presentation times were staggered, so professors and students could attend multiple events. While some students living in different time zones sent in prerecorded presentations, most prepared live presentations so they could answer questions from participants in real time.

“None of us had really used Microsoft Teams to its full potential, so we all had to learn how to use the program and how to best display our research,” says Thulander, who presented two student-faculty research presentations virtually. “We also had to coordinate ahead of time—and that was harder to do than if we had all been able to meet more easily on campus, and we had to practice the skill of speaking dynamically, even though we couldn’t see each other while presenting.”

And … showtime!

Of the 41 students enrolled across two sections of Social Impact Through Communications and Storytelling, 32 took part in the symposium. Each researched a social issue in nearby Perry County, Pennsylvania, and created a marketing brochure for distribution by the Perry County Health Coalition and Perry County Literacy Council. When the college shifted to online instruction in March, they’d completed their research and were beginning to create the brochures.

Devon Carlson ’20 (educational studies, political science) and Mohamed Kane, Ben Levin and Giang Doan, all international business & management majors in the class of 2020, worked with local nonprofits to research and write about chronic illnesses in Perry County and the effects on the lives of local patients. Levin notes that because many patients don’t realize they have these conditions, the educational brochures the students created about symptoms and treatments can have a big impact.

Odin Bules ’21 (environmental science) studied the blooming phenology of wildflowers in Central Pennsylvania over decades, along with Amanda Parker ’21 (biology). He says that, as a result of this work, he finds himself considering new lines of inquiry during walks around the area. “I’ve been noticing more about the little things outside and asking myself questions about the patterns I see,” Bules explains. “When you do research like this, it makes you look at the world in a different way.”

Students taking Spanish for the Health Professions this spring felt similarly, says Ryan Murphy ’20 (biochemistry & molecular biology), who noted that translating for Spanish-speaking migrant workers and English-speaking health care providers at an Adams County, Pennsylvania, clinic, along with Giuseppe Collia ’20 (environmental studies, Spanish) and Justina Warnick ’20 (neuroscience, Spanish), built empathy and greater cross-cultural understanding.

Warnick says that while she didn’t know what to expect during their online presentation, she was pleased. “We had about 15 people listening to our presentation, which was more than I expected. A few of them also had some really insightful questions,” says Warnick. “It was great to see that people were so interested and engaged.”


Some attendees included young alumni, like Sam Bogan ’16  and Max Lee ’19, who caught up on the latest news on research projects they participated in as students and often contributed perspectives they’ve gained since to the conversations. These connections across state lines, national borders and class years highlight the spirit of community this event represents, says Boback. “With students all over the world and the semester disrupted, what better time is it for people to get back, check in with friends and colleagues and students and past students and see what they’ve been up to and have some of those stimulating intellectual conversations we like to foster?” he asks. “We’re very proud of the rigorous work our students have been doing, even in these challenging times, and we’re happy to provide them with a forum to share it.”

There are also professional benefits, Thulander says.

“For me, there was never really a thought of not presenting,” she says. “I think learning how to present in another form is always great. We have one more skill to bring to the table for future positions.”


Published May 4, 2020