Advancing the Science

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November 5, 2020

Faced with a pandemic, undergraduate research programs innovate and evolve

By Caitlin Doran
18 of the nearly of the students who presented in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology track at the poster session.
Disruptions due to COVID-19 didn't deter undergraduates committed to a summer of research training at Mayo Clinic. Instead, they learned to thrive in a virtual environment and even presented their scientific posters online.

This summer, COVID-19 nearly sidetracked research training plans for more than 200 students who had been accepted in to Mayo’s competitive undergraduate programs—Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP).  However, instead of cancelling the programs, the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences decided to innovate instead—revamping the programs into a mew virtual offering called Summer Foundations in Research.

“Everyone who had been accepted into the SURF or UREP programs was invited to take part in the Summer Foundations in Research program instead, and more than 80% decided to take us up on our offer” says Karen Weavers, Summer Foundations in Research program administrator. “This says a lot about the value these students see in what we have to teach them, even without the ability to offer the usual on-campus format they signed up for.”

Mayo Clinic has offered these summer undergraduate research programs for 30 years. Typically, the students participate in a mentored laboratory research project; career development workshops; networking opportunities with faculty, laboratory staff, and peers; and coaching to help them develop presentation skills. In addition, students who may be interested in coming to Mayo Clinic for medical school or graduate school have a chance to meet professors and become better acquainted with the advanced degree programs available.

“We didn’t want to lose any of those opportunities in moving to a virtual format,” says Chris Pierret, Ph.D., Summer Foundations in Research program director. “We designed the new Summer Foundations in Research program to provide the same academic rigor and personal relationships of a hands-on experience, while also taking the opportunity to innovate, enriching our program with new elements that are optimized for the virtual format.”

The four-week program retained opportunities for students to attend program seminars; engage in one-on-one scientific mentorships; and make connections in the research community by attending lab meetings, and departmental seminars and journal clubs. In addition, program staff added new components, such as:

A blockbuster online poster session

Screen shot from Elizabeth Martin's  presentation.
Elizabeth Martin presents a poster about her summer research experience, which focused on DNA barcoding.

Of course, no research training program would be complete without poster presentations. The Summer Foundations in Research program pivoted to a virtual presentation format for those as well. 

Weavers says the virtual poster sessions worked very well and enabled a high level of student creativity and engagement.

 “We used a platform that enabled each student to post a photo, a 5-minute talk, and a high-quality image of their poster,” says Weavers.

The poster session was open to all Mayo students and faculty as usual—but this year, for the first time, students could take advantage of the virtual format to invite unlimited friends and family, as well as external faculty and mentors.

“The students loved that,” says Weavers.” We had more than 14,000 unique poster views and nearly 1,000 hours of content interaction time.”

Students gave the virtual program high marks

Evaluations from pre- and post-program surveys showed positive results. Participants demonstrated significant gains in confidence on core research skills, as well as gains in knowledge of and interest in research careers. 85% indicted they plan to apply to a Mayo education program in the future. Mentoring and resilience training received the highest overall ratings from students, with 85% rating the resilience sessions as “quite” or “extremely” worthwhile, and nearly 100% indicating that their mentors were supportive and showed genuine interest in their research ideas.

Summer Foundations in Research program leaders say that this summer’s experiment has worked so well that they plan to offer a version of it in the future: perhaps reformatted as an onboarding process to be completed prior to on-campus components, or as a stand-alone experience.

“We turn down well over 1,000 students every year for our on-campus summer undergraduate research programs,” says Dr. Pierret. “But the digital and scalable format of Summer Foundations in Research may allow us to reach more students, including many who may not otherwise be able to take advantage of the program. We could help inspire a lot more young people to pursue science.”

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Tags: Amit Sood, Center for Clinical and Translational Science, Chris Pierret, Education, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, resiliency, stress management, Summer Foundations in Research, Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Undergraduate Research Experience Program

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