It takes patience and plenty of good-will to transform a dynamic and intensive in-person summer program into a virtual experience that offers genuine and impactful connections. With the support of SFI Professor and Program Director Chris Kempes and Education Program Manager Carla Shedivy, ten students around the U.S. and 11 SFI researcher-mentors proved up to the task. This summer, in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, SFI Education held its first-ever virtual Undergraduate Complexity Research (UCR) program.
"After some unpleasant experiences with online classes in the months leading up to the SFI UCR program, my hopes were not very high for a virtual research experience," says program participant Julia Beckwith. "I expected to be cordial with my peers, perhaps make some professional connections, and spend most of my time on Zoom daydreaming about the mountains in Santa Fe. I ended up making new friends, having great conversations with SFI professors and staff, and looking forward to our cohort’s daily Zoom call."
Each summer, UCRs receive dedicated and expert mentorship on individual research projects, opportunities to meet SFI faculty, tutorials on how to conduct good research, and support and learning from one another. These experiences establish professional relationships that last far beyond the duration of the program. The virtual community created this year preserved these important parts of the UCR experience.
"What sets the SFI undergraduate research program apart is that students become equal members of the SFI research community," says Kempes. "Rather than simply assisting with someone else’s work, we ask them to take full ownership of their project. They decide what they want to study and how to go about it with guidance from an SFI mentor. We were eager to preserve this approach in the online program."
Through the program, UCR participants build confidence and competence conducting research, gaining salient experience to inform their subsequent careers. During the final week, UCRs present their efforts and findings to the broader SFI community.
"My UCR experience gave me the confidence to believe that I could obtain a PhD and become a researcher if I wanted to," said UCR Bronwynn Woodsworth. "Designing my own project from scratch and gathering enough data for a final presentation was an incredible feeling."
But the UCR program isn’t all work; The immersive mix of scientific collaboration and socializing gives the program a special kind of magic. To re-create the interactivity of in-person programming, SFI postdocs hosted two virtual game nights with the UCRs. Movie nights and other self-organized social activities rounded out opportunities to connect for fun as well as study.
This year, the UCRs’ virtual constraints offered its own magic. "The summer was challenging but also exhilarating in ways that I never expected; I loved jumping on Zoom to play online drawing games and talk about stand-up comedy and research dilemmas with my fellow UCRs before returning to edit an excessively long Python script," says Woodsworth. "Ultimately I learned that it really is possible to have your life changed over Zoom."
The UCR program is accepting applications for the summer of 2021. Apply by January 11.