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Charles Center & Swem Library forge Plan B for summer undergraduate research

  • Sundial with Swem Library in background
    Summer means research:  Hundreds of William & Mary undergraduates come back to campus each summer to participate in faculty-mentored research projects. This year, Dan Cristol and the Charles Center staff have figured out a way for students to do summer research during COVID-19 restrictions. And Swem Library is a big part of it.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The upheaval and restrictions of COVID-19 won’t stop undergraduate research over the summer at William & Mary.

But prudence and social-distancing measures will make the experiences quite a bit different from previous years.

COVID-19 — and the slate of revised methods of operation that came with it — arrived just as student proposals for summer research funding were being reviewed in the Roy A. Charles Center for Academic Excellence. There was time —just enough — for the Charles Center to engineer a plan B.

“So, before we awarded individual funding, we asked every single applicant to write a revision,” Dan Cristol said. “We asked them to tell us how they would do summer research completely at home, if necessary.”

It was necessary.

Cristol is the faculty director for undergraduate research at the Charles Center. Each year, the Charles Center coordinates and provides funding for summer undergraduate research in the humanities, social sciences and natural/computational sciences. Each year, there are research opportunities on campus and around the globe. The typical on-campus research experience lasts seven to ten weeks and is supported by a $3,000 Charles Center scholarship. It often comes with complimentary student housing.

The Charles Center funded a record number of faculty-mentored undergrad research opportunities for summer 2020, Cristol said. Some 350 William & Mary students will receive that $3,000 scholarship and another 200 undergrads will be doing summer research supported by other sources.

But this summer, virtually none of the student researchers will be on campus. So Cristol and company figured out a way to conduct summer research virtually.

“The students will be doing research at home, which means in many cases they’ll be doing different projects than they originally proposed,” Cristol said. “In some cases, they’re doing the exact same project, because it involves research that can be done on the internet and writing about it.”

It’s the lab-based projects that are most changed, Cristol said. Many of those students will write a review paper on their topic, then do the lab work on campus in the fall.

“So we’ve sort of flipped a lot of things,” he said. “We left it up to each faculty mentor to figure out what to do, and we gave them all the option of not doing it. I don’t think a single person opted out of being a mentor. And very few of the students opted out, if any.”

With hundreds of student-faculty teams ready to do summer research under unusual conditions, Cristol and the other Charles Center staff had to design an appropriate infrastructure to make it happen and make the experiences meaningful.

“The question became: How do you support all these people who are doing research, under not-ideal circumstances?” Cristol said. “And doing it far from the eyes of their instructor.”

He developed a three-element approach to making summer research at home work. First, Cristol turned to W&M Libraries employees, who jumped into the plan.

Candice Benjes-Small, head of research at Swem Library, said that from a librarian’s point of view, the students were working backwards. She learned from Cristol that the summer research students usually conduct a review of the literature relevant to their project right before they make their fall presentation, long after the data are gathered.

She cites the librarian’s dictum that states that an hour in the library can save you six months in the lab. It’s advice that she hopes William & Mary’s summer research squad will begin to heed this year.

“Usually, we don’t see them,” Benjes-Small said of the summer research students. “They’ve already put in their proposals and are already working on their research, often in a lab setting. Last summer, I don’t remember seeing any of the students in any kind of official capacity. It’s totally backwards. What if someone has already proven or disproven your hypothesis? Discovering that after you’ve gathered all your data, right before you present your findings, would be terrible. We decided to see this as an opportunity for them to get it in the right order.”

Benjes-Small and the other W&M Libraries research librarians have organized a series of how-to workshops for the summer research students. She said she and Cristol collaborated on starting a workshop series for students last year. It was a successful effort, she said, one that laid the groundwork for this year’s summer research sessions.

The summer workshops will be presented beginning the first week of summer session. The workshops will be offered through Zoom, and are geared toward using digitized resources. Knowing best practices for accessing internet-accessible collections is especially important during lockdown time, but Benjes-Small added that comfort with digital sources is handy for researchers at any time.

“A lot of students, and even some faculty, think that they have to physically go to a museum or a library or archives to see the items,” she said. “Often there are things online that they can use.”

Benjes-Small said the W&M Libraries employees are preparing another workshop that aims to show student researchers tips about when they should refine their research question and how to go about tweaking their goal of discovery in a more nuanced, productive direction. There will be other workshops, presented virtually through June, she said.

“We’ll have one on finding and evaluating data sets. I'm taking point on one about writing literature reviews, we'll have a couple about citations,” Benjes-Small said. “And then one that we hopefully won't have to offer in the future, but it should be very timely, is how to find full text during a pandemic.”

Cristol said the second pillar of summer research during a pandemic is the organization of virtual meetings for research groups.

“There will be meetings between the faculty mentor and their students of course. But we’re also going to put together bigger groups of people, he said.”

Those bigger groups, he explained, will be organized by topic area or other groupings guided by common interest. The larger group meetings will deliver an extra benefit in those cases in which one faculty member is mentoring a single summer research student.

“These larger groups will give students in these one-on-one research projects exposure to the collaborative culture that’s important in the research world,” Cristol said. “These bigger groups will meet every week or so, talk about progress and share ideas.”

The virtual group meetings will begin around June 10, the second week of summer session. Cristol added that he plans to have a Swem research librarian on each of the virtual group meetings to offer guidance and advice. Benjes-Small said she sees the virtual group meetings as a kind of Zoom Burke’s Parlor — a continual exchange of debate and ideas among an ever-changing group of participants. She cited another adage: All research stands on the shoulders of giants.

“You need to have a good foundation so that your footing holds up. And so I see the librarian as a fellow scholar who is entering the conversation, listening to what others have said and contributing to the conversation,” she said. “Then when we leave, we can use the information we have gathered to make the workshop series even more effective.”

“The third thing we’re going to do is to try to really advertise how easy it is to get help from a research library, and how to do whatever you need to do virtually,” Cristol said. “A lot of students don’t take advantage of their library. They don’t really know how to do it.”