A Virtual Science Research Experience and Building Community During a Pandemic

Hayden Gillooly S’19, Williams College ‘21

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. Hayden is enrolled at Williams remotely in her hometown of North Adams, MA this semester, adapting to new ways of learning sparked by the pandemic. She is writing a thesis with Professor Lisa Gilbert at Williams-Mystic titled, “The Changing Climate of Maritime, Experiential, Place-Based Education in the Time of COVID-19.”

Since fall 2019, I looked forward to Summer 2020 in Mystic, CT working with Professor Lisa Gilbert and labmates in the Marine Geosciences Research Group (MGRG). I was eager to have meals together while discussing our projects; go on adventures, and soak up all that the Mystic Seaport Museum has to offer. It sounded like a dream summer, so I was undoubtedly disappointed when I found out that our summer work would have to be done remotely. “How would we build a research community virtually?” I thought, while admittedly tearing up a bit. Having never created a community virtually, nevermind started a friendship with someone from square-one virtually, it was hard to wrap my head around the possibility of having these ‘out of the classroom,’ connections via Zoom.

After our initial MGRG Zoom meeting, all of my worries dissipated. Lisa said that the thread that linked us all together, among our academic interests, was that we were all kind people. She said that was a prerequisite for working in her lab, and from the very first moment I saw the other four students’ bright smiles and enthusiasm, I could tell that this was true. After our first meeting, I ran downstairs after to my mom, and started speaking very quickly (as I always do when I’m excited) about how neat everyone seemed, and how it everyone was excited to be a part of the group and grow and learn in whatever way possible; even if those ways would be different than how we were expecting pre-COVID. 

During our first week of work, my research mates and I went in with full force, scheduling get-to-know-you Zooms, where we just talked for hours about everything from majors and paths that lead us to our schools, to hopes and dreams and bucket lists. Over the next 10 weeks, we philosophized over what it meant to have a meaningful life, and about chasing our wildest, greatest passions. Our friendships evolved smoothly and naturally; it was quite magical, actually, feeling these relationships take shape over a computer screen, from hundreds of miles and states apart. In fact, when I met Maggie and Jenn in person later in the summer, it felt completely natural, as if we were picking up where we left off. It felt like we already knew each other. Because we did! 

Lisa assigned us what she called, “Paper Discussions” each week. She chose a paper for us to read and discuss with one of our labmates via Zoom. Sometimes the paper lined up with our own topic, other times, that of our labmates. These meetings served as a perfect starting point for getting to know each other, and was always something that I looked so forward to. After a few weeks of working together, we all had a strong grasp of each other’s projects, to the point where we frequently exchanged articles, podcasts and relevant resources with each other, accompanied by messages saying, “this reminds me of your project!” It always made me smile to know that someone else was thinking of my project as well. Other students’ projects ranged from creating earth science systems thinking modules for a site called Teach the Earth, to analyzing the differences between in-person and virtual communities and ecosystems; to studying intra pillow hyaloclastite to analyze its porosity and biomass within the cracks. 

I am thankful that Lisa was intentional about not only giving us a rewarding research experience independently but how she so acutely recognized the value of community and learning from the people around us. Having an interdisciplinary range of projects made for fascinating conversations, with intersections between education, literature and hard science. 

Even some projects, which at first seemed to have little overlap with mine, encouraged me to think about the world from a different perspective. Much of my thesis topic’s progression has been shaped by conversations with Lisa, Lily, Jenn, Cam, and Maggie.

It was everyone’s intentionality that made all the difference. Had we all worked on our own projects, without regard to the potential connections with our labmates, I believe that my summer work could have felt incredibly isolating and unfulfilling. Having to share progress and thoughts with others helped motivate, even on long days when I felt a little lost or overwhelmed. Our excitements all grew, not only for our own work, but for each other’s projects as well. We all became a small ecosystem, as Lily’s project could argue. And through the lens of Cam’s project, we were truly a system, each understanding our role in the larger picture: MGRG. Jenn and Maggie’s projects made me think about all that happens in between the cracks (both physically in the basalt of course, but mostly in the cracks of life). The kinds of learning that happen in the cracks of structured meetings and work. 

There were in fact some silver linings to a virtual summer; one of which was having the opportunity to attend virtual conferences. The unexpected transition from in-person to remote for these conferences made them incredibly accessible to people who may not have been able to otherwise attend due to possible time or financial constraints. 

In June, I attended an event called “Building a Meaningful Remote Internship Experience,” through the Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS). There were about 60 attendees, composed of both mentors and mentees. Strategies were shared for building communities, as well as the challenges and opportunities that a virtual environment presented us. One main takeaway from the event was that in a virtual mentoring space, we often miss out on spontaneous updates with our mentors. I wanted to change this, so I sent Lisa an email with the subject line, “A Little Victory!” and wrote, “In the SWMS meeting from the other night, something that stuck out was how in a virtual internship experience, we sometimes miss out on sharing the exciting moments of research and discovery, and may tend to just touch base with questions or concerns. So I just wanted to share with you that I just found an article that is so relevant to the ideas I’m grappling with for my thesis, that it literally made me smile!” 

In July, I attended the Earth Educators’ Rendezvous 2020 (EER20), which is a conference that includes panel discussions, talks, poster presentations and workshops. At the two poster sessions that I attended, I was the only attendee, and had the opportunity to ask in-depth questions of the researchers, and connect their work with my thesis topic. It was so wonderful to be able to discuss my project with a wide range of faculty from universities across the country, and hear their encouragement. One faculty member I met, Professor Steven Semken at Arizona State University, is an expert in place-based education, and shared relevant articles with me; I realized after our conversation, that I had actually read many of his pieces, which were incredibly formative in my understanding of this type of education. Attending EER20 reaffirmed my desire to pursue academia, not only for my unwavering love of learning, but also because of the incredible networks and communities in the field. 

In one of our last MGRG meetings, Lisa invited an alum from the research group, Caroline Hung who graduated from Williams College in 2019, to join us. Caroline is a Ph.D geochemistry student at UC Riverside. Caroline is so passionate about what she studies, and it was incredibly inspiring to hear about her experiences, especially since a research article from her Geosciences thesis was recently published.

After we wrapped up our MGRG summer work, we had a Zoom meeting with all of the other research students who worked with Williams College Geosciences professors this summer. We all shared our project topics, and had the opportunity to ask each other questions. It was a lot of fun to hear about what everyone has been working on, and to see the diverse range of topics. My favorite part, however, was realizing that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. We are now a part of a whole network of students and faculty who all love Geosciences and education. 

We often grow when we least expect it. Summer 2020 ended up taking a drastically different shape than how we were expecting, but it was rewarding in more ways than I could possibly measure or explain. Summer 2020 showed me the immense potential of human relationships. It showed me that no matter how different two people or projects seem at first, there are always possible grounds for understanding and connection. Maybe it just takes an ice breaker like, “What song has been on your playlist recently?”, but after that, you realize that you’re both just people trying your hardest to contribute in a meaningful way to the scientific community and the world at large. And that is often enough commonality to build a friendship. 

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