How students have adapted to limited lab time, cancelled programs and remote research

C/O Firmbee.com

Doing a thesis or capstone project can be difficult in regular circumstances. In this virtual year, students have shown incredible innovation, determination and have made the most out of these trying times. These eight students from a range of disciplines and types of research have shared their challenges and triumphs navigating this strange and unpredictable year.

While each of their experiences is unique and insightful, many of these students had similar challenges and benefits in this online year.

Rya Buckley, who is also the Silhouette‘s Arts and Culture Editor, and Lee Higgins both had trouble with remote desktop access. Buckley couldn’t access the data or statistics program, SPSS and instead conducted her data analysis through Zoom calls in which she shared her screen with research coordinator Caroline Reid-Westoby. Higgins had concerns about speed and file safety.

“I needed one software which was on those computers and I just bought it instead because I didn’t want to deal with it. I just spent $120 on the software and bit the bullet,” said Higgins.

“I needed one software which was on those computers and I just bought it instead because I didn’t want to deal with it. I just spent $120 on the software and bit the bullet.”

Lee Higgins

Several of the students had to change their research methods. Titi Huynh and her group were restricted to online surveys for their data collection, rather than interviews. Christy Au-Yeung hoped to choose clinical assessments and apply them to patients in a memory intervention program, but the program was cancelled in the fall due to COVID-19.

Julia Wickens and Higgins, both in the faculty of engineering, were able to be more ambitious and creative with their capstone projects because they no longer had a manufacturing component.

“We didn’t have to take into account the cost of materials and building time and stuff like that, so we were able to make something a bit more interesting,” said Wickens.

Peipei Wang had very limited access to the laboratory she belonged to but was still able to expose mice to cannabis smoke and the influenza virus and analyze the results with the help of a masters student and laboratory technician.

Though Rodoshi Rahman could have done further experiments with more laboratory access, she was able to take her experiments home. She built two snail compartments in a tank and studied their growth.

Sarphina Chui’s thesis changed completely. She was initially going to study the effects of dance and music on people with Parkinson’s. Instead, she has studied pedagogy to inform a new integrated program at McMaster.

Every student highlighted the challenges and benefits of online communication. For some, the logistics of setting up a common meeting time was a hurdle. Others found it simpler to meet online, to have several questions answered at once and to have quick check-ins.

Huynh mentioned that she hoped to spend more time in the community she researched. Wickens wanted to spend time with her group members in a social setting.

Huynh mentioned that she hoped to spend more time in the community she researched. Wickens wanted to spend time with her group members in a social setting.

All students expressed gratitude for the support they’ve received over the past year, from supervisors, group members and classmates.

“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected, it’s been a positive experience and I’m sure that’s maybe what you’re hearing from a lot of people,” said Au-Yeung.

“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected, it’s been a positive experience and I’m sure that’s maybe what you’re hearing from a lot of people.”

Christy Au-Yeung

That is exactly what I heard from the eight students I was fortunate to interview and share their experiences.

Christy Au-Yeung: level IV integrated science and psychology, neuroscience and behaviour

Thesis: identifying which clinical predictors — like age, personality, cognitive abilities, depression and stress — could predict better outcomes in memory following a cognitive remediation intervention in patients with mood disorders.

Supervisor: Heather McNeely, associate professor at McMaster in PNB and clinical lead for neuropsychology at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

Christy Au-Yeung has a long-term interest in mental health interventions, especially on the cognitive symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder, such as memory. She is interested in identifying how clinical factors will impact the outcomes of interventions. 

Initially, she was supposed to choose clinical assessments and administer them before and after intervention; however, because the program was cancelled for the fall, Au-Yeung instead used data from previous patients to analyze clinical predictors and outcomes.

“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected it’s been a positive experience,” explained Au-Yeung.

Au-Yeung said that apart from the research question, she was really interested in this project to gain clinical experience and she was a bit sad to find out she couldn’t. Luckily, the program ran online in the winter term and she was excited to sit in. Au-Yeung hopes she can use what she’s learned in her pursuit of clinical psychology.

Though she initially felt disconnected, she said the online environment has made it easier to meet with her supervisor and that the other thesis students have been supporting each other.

Au-Yeung said she relied a lot on being motivated by her peers but, with the nature of an online thesis, she’s learned to work more independently.

“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected it’s been a positive experience,” added Au-Yeung.

“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected it’s been a positive experience.”

Christy Au-Yeung
Christy Au-Yeung

Rya Buckley: level IV biology and psychology, neuroscience and behaviour

Thesis: association between socioeconomic status, the uptake of the enhanced 18-month well baby visit and speech and language problems in Ontario kindergarten children.

Supervisor: Magdalena Janus, core member at Offord Centre for Child Studies and professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.

Rya Buckley is interested in child psychology and especially socioeconomic status differences, as SES is a predictor of many outcomes for children. For her thesis, Buckley used data from the early development instrument, co-created by her supervisor, that measures school readiness through various domains of development.

Buckley said that the main adaptation she’s had to make due to COVID-19, apart from no in-person meetings, is access to the data.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I still feel like it has been a useful experience,” said Buckley.

Typically, students use the computers at the Offord Centre in McMaster Innovation Park to access the database and run analysis on SPSS.

“I still feel like supervisors, for the most part, are trying to give their students the best experience.”

Rya Buckley

Due to technical difficulties, they were unable to create access through a remote desktop. Instead, Buckley had weekly meetings with Caroline Reid-Westoby, research coordinator at the Offord Centre, where Reid-Westoby would share her screen with the data and SPSS. Buckley would talk about the next steps in the analysis, Reid-Westoby would perform the commands and send the outputs to Buckley.

“I still feel like supervisors, for the most part, are trying to give their students the best experience,” said Buckley, adding that it’s been a rewarding experience.

Rya Buckley

Sarphina Chui: level IV music – music cognition specialization

Thesis: development of a STEM and music four-year double major degree program at McMaster University.

Co-Supervisors: Matthew Woolhouse, director of the Digital Music Lab and associate professor in the School of the Arts at McMaster University and Chelsea Mackinnon, sessional instructor of health sciences at McMaster University.

Sarphina Chui’s initial thesis on the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s disease was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, Chui joined the STEM and Music double degree project, specifically looking at music pedagogy and how to best design an integrated program.

Chui designed a 30-minute online interview for current students in integrated programs at McMaster to understand their undergraduate experience and inform the structure of the proposed STEM and music program.

“To see how we can . . . build an undergraduate degree program that’s most beneficial for students to learn,” said Chui.

“To see how we can . . . build an undergraduate degree program that’s most beneficial for students to learn.”

Sarphina Chui

Chui said that it would have been easier to advertise her study in person, but she said that online interviews haven’t impacted the quality of the research she has done.

“I would say it’s been really great and it’s because of my supervisor. I know that thesis can suck for some people, with it being online, but my experience has been amazing,” said Chui.

The student explained that her supervisors prioritized mental health and that she has learned a lot of really valuable skills from her thesis.

Sarphina Chui
The Digital Music Lab. C/O Sarphina Chui

Lee Higgins: level IV B. tech automotive and vehicle engineering technology co-op

Capstone: pitch and roll adjustable active rear wing for touring and road car applications.

Supervisor: capstone course professor.

Lee Higgins and his two group members are spending January to December designing and simulating a rear spoiler. The design that Higgins and his group are working on will be able to pitch forward and backwards and tilt side to side and the force these movements produce, as it goes.

There is typically a manufacturing component to the capstone but that became optional due to COVID-19. Higgins noted that he was able to create a more complex design but that he lost out on the practical component.

So far, he has worked on a literature review of the necessary concepts and is beginning the modelling stage. Later in the year, he will simulate the model and add any necessary revisions.

“I wanted to really do something cool, something that I was proud of,” said Higgins.

“I wanted to really do something cool, something that I was proud of.”

Lee Higgins

“While it’s different, it’s not as different as I expected it to be. It’s not as bad as I expected it to be. I still had an opportunity to do something that I really cared about that I really liked. Even though it was slightly different I was able to bend it in a way that I was still happy with,” added Higgins.

Lee Higgins
Lee Higgins’s rear spoiler design. C/O Lee Higgins

Titi Huynh: level IV social psychology, double minor in sustainability and environmental studies

Thesis: the influence of social media on undergraduate students’ perceptions of reality.

Supervisor: thesis course professor.

Titi Huynh and her four group members looked at the communities that are formulated online through social media and how they can recreate norms and biases amongst individuals, as well as how online behaviours affect offline behaviours.

Huynh said that they were restricted to online surveys because of COVID-19, which had challenges and benefits.

“I know we wouldn’t have been able to reach the 53 students that we did end up reaching if we were to do interviews,” said Huynh, noting that it was initially difficult to recruit students.

“I know we wouldn’t have been able to reach the 53 students that we did end up reaching if we were to do interviews.”

Titi Huynh

To analyze their data, Huynh and her group members would call each other over Zoom, someone would screen share SPSS software and they would go through the analysis verbally. Once they moved from SPSS to Microsoft Excel, it became easier as everyone could access the sheet at the same time.

Huynh also conducted a sustainability thesis as part of her minor. This thesis was in a group of five and they collaborated with the Hamilton Farmers Market to look at vendors’ perceptions on trying to implement or co-develop a food recovery program. Huynh hoped that the vendors could collaborate with a non-profit, such as Meals with Purpose, to donate any unsold healthy and nutritious foods.

This thesis hoped to address food insecurity and food waste in Hamilton. They conducted interviews with vendors and used NVivo to conduct their analysis. However, their McMaster license to NVivo expired after the first semester, before they had data to analyze.

“Everybody planned a schedule for each person to start their two-week free trial and then we would overlap it, so two people would be able to work on it within the same two-week period,” said Huynh. 

“Everybody planned a schedule for each person to start their two-week free trial and then we would overlap it, so two people would be able to work on it within the same two-week period.” 

Titi Huynh

Huynh said that she would have liked to be more involved within the community, such as the participants in her social psychology thesis or the vendors at the Farmers Market. She also noted the benefits of two of these at the same time, where she completed an ethics application for one and then immediately started the application for the other thesis.

“It’s been good. I am very thankful we did these in groups,” said Huynh.

She wished that she could have been more hands-on with her theses and worked directly with the communities.

“With the online environment we seem to have taken a step back and observed everything, which was different, but they were both very enjoyable,” said Huynh.

Titi Huynh
Titi Huynh, her Social Psychology thesis poster and her group members Olivia McMurray, Victoria Scimeca, Kristen Kostuch and Mya Martorano.

Rodoshi Rahman: level V molecular biology and genetics

Thesis: phenotypic plasticity of snail shell morphology induced by architectural constraints.

Supervisor: Jonathon Stone, associate professor of biology at McMaster University.

Rodoshi Rahman has spent the year with snails to see how their shells grow and physically adapt to an architecturally constrained environment. Rahman said that some snails naturally can live in areas that are more sheltered while others live in areas that are more open, including more open to predators.

The nature of her design and the fact that snails are invertebrates meant that Rahman was able to build and conduct her experiment at home. Rahman grew the snails in one of two compartments that she built, one without restrictions and one with a maze, for about two and a half months.

Rahman said that she was acquainted with Stone’s lab before COVID-19.

“I was super excited to experience that because I feel like Doc Roc’s lab was super energetic, they were super friendly but they were also very educational,” said Rahman.

She was really let down that she couldn’t experience this, especially the challenges with making connections, but felt that the online adaptation was smooth.

“[Doc Roc’s] been super available and flexible and helpful,” said Rahman, crediting part of her success within the thesis to Doc Roc’s guidance and training, even if it had to be through Zoom.

“[Doc Roc’s] been super available and flexible and helpful.”

Rodoshi Rahman
Rodoshi Rahman
Rahman’s at-home snail setup. C/O Rodoshi Rahman

Peipei Wang: level IV integrated science and biochemistry, minor in statistics

Thesis: investigating the in vivo effects of cannabis smoke on lung immune response to influenza infection.

Supervisor: Jeremy Hirota, assistant professor at McMaster University and Canada research chair in respiratory mucosal immunology.

Peipei Wang has been exposing mice to short periods of consistent cannabis smoke to see how it affects different lung functions. Partway through the cannabis smoke exposure period, they infected the mice with influenza.

“Let’s say lungs are damaged due to cannabis smoke. How does that damage their specific response to specific diseases?” said Wang.

She planned to analyze the gene expression within these mice, but she found out in early March that she was unable to get the RNA data in time. Instead, Wang changed her focus to cell populations and immune mediator expression. Although she found her new topic interesting, she was initially looking forward to analyzing the data that would result from her gene expression analyses.

“There were definitely still upsides. I felt really included by my master’s student, so when he was smoke-exposing and anything happened, he would WhatsApp me and say “Oh, this happened, this looks kind of cool take a look,” and I thought that was really nice,” said Wang.

The student spoke to how interactions with others helped her complete her research.

“Everyone has been so nice and conducive to helping me learn. Even through the pandemic I felt like I had these mentors who were checking up on me and that was really nice,” said Wang.

“Everyone has been so nice and conducive to helping me learn. Even through the pandemic I felt like I had these mentors who were checking up on me and that was really nice.”

Peipei Wang
Peipei Wang
Clips courtesy of Peipei Wang. Video courtesy of Derrick Chappell.

Julia Wickens: level VI mechanical engineering and society, minor in psychology

Capstone: universal muscle stretching equipment.

Supervisor: Philip Koshy, professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster University.

Julia Wickens and her three group members have spent their year responding to the lack of gym equipment focused on stretching. They are creating a piece of equipment designed specifically for a gym environment that can guide people through stretching, especially for those who aren’t as experienced.

The group collaborated on the design but then divided the modelling of each station among themselves, where Wickens and another group member developed the legs and back station. In a typical year, capstone students make a prototype but that was made optional this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“One of the nice things about doing this online is that we were able to go a little bit more ambitious than we would have if we did have to build it,” said Wickens. 

“One of the nice things about doing this online is that we were able to go a little bit more ambitious than we would have if we did have to build it.” 

Julia Wickens

They designed the equipment to be highly adjustable to accommodate different flexibility levels and body sizes.

Wickens completed a capstone for the society component of her degree in the fall term. The capstone challenged the students to research and propose a protocol to implement a program.

The program was meant to address a sustainability problem. Wickens and her three group members chose to focus on a social and financial sustainability problem.

Her group of four developed a proposal for a community program to distribute low-cost computers and computer classes in downtown Hamilton. The computers would be partially made of recycled materials, involving an environmental sustainability lens and a Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pis are affordable small computers that can connect to the internet and run programs similar to Microsoft Suite programs.

Wickens said that overall the capstone was a good experience and she felt very lucky to have the technology that enabled them to accomplish everything they did.

“The thing we were kind of sad about is that we got along really well as a group and we couldn’t hang out outside of working on the project,” said Wickens.

“The thing we were kind of sad about is that we got along really well as a group and we couldn’t hang out outside of working on the project.”

Julia Wickens
Julia Wickens
Image courtesy of Lee H

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