In mid-March of 2020, our students left campus for spring break with the ominous possibility that they may not be coming back to the department and their labs in the near future. In a department that enjoys a hearty research momentum, the idea of suspending research seemed absurd. We went home and began to plan for the unimaginable scenario of changing our research agendas.
As the realities of the pandemic started to set in, the flood of email announcing changes in procedures and practices temporarily displaced the productive inflow of lab communications. The deluge of email and news that began with because of the pandemic made it impossible to deny that research-and-learning-as-usual had to be redefined.
I worried about our first-year (now second-year) students because they were involved in research projects that showcase their development as scholars. Many of our students plan to apply for doctoral programs and depend on their individual and collaborative projects to hone their interests and acquire specialized skills. I wondered, “Will our students lose out on important projects that demonstrate their research prowess because of the pandemic?”
I needn’t have worried because our research program is built on the foundation of our student’s resourceful determination, our faculty’s stalwart dedication to our students and their goals, and our department’s firm commitment to the community of participants who contribute to our projects.
Now that we have started the fall semester, fully engaged in research, I can marvel at our students’ progress. Because of the pandemic, we had to generate creative solutions to continue our collaborative work. Catherine Yang, who works with Dr. Daniel Simons, describes how she responded to constraints created by the pandemic in our Student Spotlight (see above). While she had to put some aspects of her project on hold, she has capitalized on alternative ways to conduct her research and has been afforded the time to focus on preregistered reports for the work that will follow.
I asked other second-year students how the pandemic necessitated changes in their research projects and how they and their labs have responded to these challenges.
Katie Haigler, who works with Dr. Heidemarie Laurent in the PRISM lab, replied, “Research after the pandemic involved a lot of thinking about how the PRISM lab had conducted studies up to that point, and problem-solving how we could transform parts of our studies to meet the challenges of remote sessions and disrupted timelines without affecting the underlying phenomena we’re trying to observe. We made honest appraisals of which parts of our studies needed to be put on hold. While the pandemic placed a lot of roadblocks to continuing research, we were able to keep our longitudinal studies operating and explore new avenues: an online COVID-specific study and more time to dedicate to projects with previously collected data.”
Catherine’s and Katie’s experiences encapsulate what I heard from other members of their cohort:
- Students adopted software that allowed them to program online studies, gain remote access to data, and maintain vital communication with study participants.
- Students and faculty prioritized setting regular meetings to document research progress, ask questions, and discuss next steps.
- Students moved their studies online when they could do so without sacrificing the aims of the project or the quality of the data. Transferring projects to an online format required students to learn additional ways to handle data quality, such as adding attention checks, writing tasks, and bonus opportunities into their studies.
- Students worked with their advisors to develop ideas and create projects specifically related to situations arising from the pandemic. Time normally spent in the lab was dedicated to writing IRB proposals and preparing research materials to launch these studies.
- Students devoted time to thinking about the purpose and value of their research, which helped them to stay connected to the outside world in a meaningful way.
- One of our students, Christine Salva, assisted the Illinois Neurobehavioral Assessment Laboratory (INBAL)—an affiliate of the psychology department that offers psychological testing services to the community—as it responded to a community need for digital (remote) assessment services that help people understand more about their attention and executive functioning skills. Specifically, Christine assisted with writing reports from the new online screenings.
Because of the pandemic, we learned a great deal about the integrity and determination of our students. The COVID-19 pandemic challenges us to be innovative and creative in our quest to advance research and our students rose to the challenge. They proved that they are committed to teamwork and problem solving; they can adapt to circumstances that are out of their control; they prioritize effective communication with mentors and colleagues; they quickly learn and apply new skills to modify research without sacrificing methodological integrity; they think critically about research design; they care about the wellbeing of our community members; and they are introspective about the value of their work and its impact on communities that reach far beyond the lab.