Senior Honors Undergraduate Research Interrupted by Covid: Lessons learned.
Anna Port UA ’20 and Jim Stellar
AP had a senior honors thesis project running in a Psychology Professor’s lab at UAlbany on adolescent alcohol exposure and maternal behavior in rats. She began this project in Fall of 2019 and finished in December of 2020. That meant she had a fall term of undergraduate research normalcy before Covid19 hit in the early spring term of 2020. And it her particularly hard as her work was experimental with her project’s requirements for testing of animals in the laboratory. So, my first question is what was your initial reaction when you heard the lab was shutting down?
My first thought was that I would never be able to finish my project. It felt like there was still so much to do and not a whole lot of it was able to be done remotely. For example, I needed to slice the brains that were just recently perfused as well as stain the tissue. In order to do these things, I needed to spend hours every day in the lab working with the equipment that was provided. Fortunately, my project was beyond the stage where I needed go into the animal facility to do hands on work with the rats every day. Just prior to the lab shut down the timing worked out in that all the animal’s postnatal observations were completed, and their brains were collected for further analysis. My thesis became dependent on solely observational data and lost a considerable amount of power. While I am fortunate in that I had this observational data to use as others lost their projects entirely, the second half of my thesis involving cell counts from brain tissue analysis could not be completed. I remember being devastated I would not be able to finish my project to its full potential as this was my first neuroscience research project and I was put in charge of the entire process. My observational results alone were not statistically significant; however, with additional neurological data it is possible my end results could have differed. Disappointed I could not complete the project myself; I hope that it is recreated in the future to visualize the results to their fullest extent.
Terrible. I remember way back to one of my early undergraduate students at Harvard in the Psychology Department when my laboratory, which was studying brain stimulation reward in laboratory rats, experienced an infection of “rat mumps.” It kill all of my student’s experimental animals, which had neurosurgery, but left all of his control animals. He did a rapidly modified undergraduate project on a psychophysical behavioral study just in the controls. His thesis committee was understanding, and he eventually went on to U. Pennsylvania Medical School. Now, we laugh about it. At the time we too were devastated.
So from this experience comes a second question. What did you learn from the lab experience, in general and as altered by the Covid19 pandemic?
If Covid19 has taught me anything in regards to my lab experience it’s that you must be flexible. There will undoubtedly be circumstances that will interfere with research, granted a global pandemic is a more extreme case, but it’s not likely an experiment will run without a hitch. Overall, my time in research has helped me to realize it’s not what I want to do with my career. While fascinating and very important to do, at times I found this kind of research to be frustrating and static. Some days did not feel productive, and it was often a big game of hurry up and wait. I loved the work I did, and I feel it’s very important research to be done; however, I realized I want to work with people. Putting my efforts into understanding and helping other people relates far more to what I hope to accomplish.
Very interesting as my former student also wanted to work with people but as an MD but he wanted to stay in touch with neuroscience research. You are pursuing a clinical psychology doctoral program and ultimate therapy with people. Do you see yourself as remaining interested in psychology research and if so how do you think your undergraduate research experience would guide that interest?
I definitely can see myself staying interested in psychology research. I believe I am more interested in the aspects of research following the actual experiment – learning new concepts and applying the research to people in current situations. However, being involved in the field of research has always been something I felt happy to be part of. The questions asked and the work done in response is fascinating and to work on, even if the results do not yield any significant conclusions. I remember explaining my research to others and being ecstatic to be involved in something that I believe is truly important. I learned a lot throughout my experience with research and I believe some of the skills I learned will serve me well in my future pursuits. Universal skills such as being thorough, not being afraid to ask questions, and having open communication with my peers are beneficial for research but will also help aid me in any future endeavors.
Final question: You clearly have not been stopped in your growth and development by the undergraduate research interruption. Why is that?
I found it most important to understand that the circumstances were completely out of my control, and there was nothing I could do to change it. While this sounds hopeless, it helped me not to dwell on the situation or place any blame. The only option at this point was to look forward and begin planning what I needed to do next. I had a goal going into my research project which was to graduate in December of 2020. Not wanting to push my graduation plans back I knew I needed to put in a lot of work to stay in my timeframe. My faculty research advisor worked with me to create a timeline of what I could get done and when. While I would have to cut some of the elements from my project, I was determined to complete the project within its newfound parameters due to the circumstances.
I learned from a young age that life will throw plenty of curveballs be it personal health, academics, sports. There will be many setbacks, but I believe it is important to anticipate what is to come.
Note: AP will be attending a PsyD program in Boston in the fall.