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Five of Penn's undergraduate researchers, from top left, clockwise: Alicia Lopez (C ’23), Adrian Ke (C ’23), Arnav La (C ’23), Aubrey Welch (C ’24), and Jasleen Gill (C ’24).

Penn undergraduates say they have gained valuable research experience this semester, in both virtual and in-person lab settings, despite the various challenges presented by COVID-19.

The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with five students about the reopening of Penn's campus this semester, which increased in-person research opportunities, and how their research journeys were impacted by the pandemic. While the students who are working in person at their labs said they would not be able to receive a comparable experience remotely, those who remain engaged in virtual research reported gaining unexpected skills and research opportunities.

College sophomore Alicia Lopez developed the idea for her current independent research project — a comparison between the rise of Gothic literature in the 1770s and Gothic television in the 1960s — during the summer of 2020. She said she's been able to meet with several professors in the School of Arts and Sciences over Zoom who have done research in related topics, in addition to her advisor, Ann Kuttner, a professor of History of Art. Lopez added that the professors helped give her new ideas for her own project. 

“A lot of my reaching out to people only really started during the pandemic,” Lopez said of meeting professors. “It's a little bit easier, in that everyone's online all the time, and so people see my email, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I can meet with this kid for 10 minutes.’”

Losing access to Penn's libraries for the fall semester, Lopez said, however, proved difficult when she needed access to a specific book on campus, which she ultimately got a hold of through pick-up options at Van Pelt this spring. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Alicia Lopez utilized the pick-up option from the Van Pelt Library to assist her research.

An advantage of being on campus for the spring, Lopez pointed out, is being able to talk out problems she faces in her research with fellow students.

“When I come across problems, because there's such a community here, it feels like if you complain to the right people, they know people who can help you,” Lopez said. “And you get kind of pushed along the line [of mutual contacts]. And maybe you end up with somebody who has the exact solution to your problem.”

Similarly, College sophomore Adrian Ke has been doing her research entirely virtually, despite having trained in the Changing Brain Lab in person for nearly three months prior to the pandemic. As part of the University Scholars program, she is now working with the Changing Brain Lab this semester on a project concerning the psychological impacts of negative parenting behaviors on children.

Rather than administering behavioral tests and assisting with MRI scans as she intended to, she has been behaviorally coding videos of parent-child interactions online.

Despite its challenges, the pandemic still brought forward unexpected opportunities for Ke to connect with local community members. 

Ke currently serves as a curiosity intervention teacher through a project with her lab, a role in which she meets with a child from West Philadelphia every morning for two-week intervals and teaches them a different science lesson. Ke added that, although it may have been easier to keep kids focused if the lessons were in person, she is uncertain if the arrangement would logistically be possible without Zoom.

“I feel really lucky that I'm in a lab — that something I can do [can] meaningfully contribute virtually,” Ke said. 

Since September 2020, Ke has also been a research assistant to Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy in the Perelman School of Medicine, in a community outreach project. Under Schmidt's guidance, she called patients in the Penn Medicine system who live in West Philadelphia and asked how likely they would be to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or participate in vaccine trials. 

"I think [it was] a really valuable way that I connected with a community that I would not have been able to connect with otherwise,” Ke said.

Like Ke, College sophomore Arnav Lal has participated in virtual research since the beginning of the spring 2020 semester, which has created obstacles and unexpected upsides. 

Lal spent his fall 2020 and early spring 2020 semesters setting up an in-person project on bacteria, but left it unfinished once the University shut campus in March 2020.

Instead of continuing with the project, Lal said he shifted focus with the help of his mentor, Paul J. Planet, an assistant professor of Pediatrics at the Medical School, and began to study genes from a data set from an evolutionary perspective. This experience expanded his skillset in a way that will enhance his future research endeavors on campus, he said.

“I thought I'd be a molecular biologist through and through, but actually, the experience of looking at things evolutionarily was extremely helpful. And it opened my eyes to a whole new way of studying the same topic,” Lal said. 

Despite Penn’s COVID-19 spike in early February, SAS has consistently allowed undergraduate research to continue throughout the semester.

Aubrey Welch, a first year in the College, said that she started with virtual research in the fall 2020 semester, and was able to begin in-person ecology research in assistant Biology professor Corlett Woods' lab in the Carolyn Lynch Laboratory building on campus in mid-January this year. She found virtual research to be less rewarding since she was mainly looking at and synthesizing the research of others — something she said is similar to the work done in classrooms on campus. 

Welch said that learning how to use lab instruments and developing soft skills has helped her grow as a researcher, adding that she expects to continue using knowledge she's gained in the lab for years to come.

“I felt like I wasn't really learning as much as I am now,” Welch said about doing virtual research. “So being able to actually apply the techniques in person, and getting hands-on experience, is definitely more beneficial to me than just doing stuff online.”

Jasleen Gill, a College first year and Vagelos Scholar, agreed with Welch that in-person research opens up opportunities that would not be possible in a virtual environment. 

After the Medical School advised faculty to halt undergraduate research in early February, Gill’s mentor went through the process the Medical School outlined to get all of his undergraduates approved for in-person research, with extra COVID-19 precautions that mandated that only two people work in the lab at once. 

Beyond just doing the DNA extractions from samples that she expected to do in her position at the Thaiss Lab in the Johnson Pavilion, Gill said she has also gotten several chances to try out new things — such as dissecting a mouse for another graduate student researcher in her lab.

When you're in person, it's very hands on,” Gill said. “And I guess the things that you can do, the opportunities you get, when you're actually interacting with people, they're very different. I wouldn't have been able to try out something new if I was stuck at home.” 

Welch called on the University to prioritize in-person research opportunities for undergraduates who are hoping to pursue advanced research endeavors in the future.

“When you're applying for more advanced jobs, or maybe higher positions in research labs, professors and researchers are going to be looking at people with past experience,” Welch said.  “So it’s really just going to hinder everyone if people aren't able to do in-person [research.]”

Gill agreed, adding that she checks Penn’s COVID-19 Dashboard each week hoping that the numbers will continue to be low enough to allow in-person research. 

“As an undergrad[uate] researcher who is not considered to be very important in this research hierarchy, I am very, very scared of what could happen if we get locked out again,” Gill said.

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