Environmental Science Graduate Student Organization hosts annual research symposium online

May 01, 2020 - by Sarah Igram

Faced with campus event cancellations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students in Iowa State’s Environmental Science Graduate Student Organization had to consider what to do about their annual research symposium.

“The idea of cancelling [the symposium] never really crossed my mind,” said Ph.D. student Tania Leung, the student organization’s president, who had been involved in planning the event since last September. “I was always thinking, what do we do next?”

Instead of hosting the research symposium in the Memorial Union on April 15, as they had originally planned, Leung and her colleagues decided to make the event virtual. She and her fellow Environmental Science Graduate Student Organization officers, Holly Curtinrich, Xuewei Liang, Micah Fatka, Sahar Daer, Lin Meng, and Quin Shingai, spent the weeks leading up to the symposium planning to host it in an entirely new forum.

Logo for the Environmental Science Interdepartmental Graduate Program

They had invited four guest speakers to the symposium: two Iowa State faculty; one professor from the University of Tennessee; and one scientist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a lab supported by the Department of Energy. Rather than coming to campus, the speakers presented via WebEx.

Leung said one of the hardest parts of planning the virtual symposium was coordinating with the speakers, especially since several were in different time zones and all of them had busy schedules. But she’s glad that students were ultimately able to hear from all four speakers from afar.

“Bringing in guest speakers broadens students’ perspectives on research and helps them establish a network,” Leung said. One of her classmates co-authored a paper with a guest speaker she met at a previous symposium; another student found a postdoctoral opportunity that way. This year, Dr. Tianzhen Hong, their guest speaker from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, stayed on WebEx an hour after finishing his discussion to speak with students individually.

­In addition to hearing from guest speakers, graduate students have presented research posters at previous years’ symposiums. Since Environmental Science is an interdepartmental program, this has allowed students to learn from their colleagues with backgrounds in agronomy, animal science, engineering, and more.

Professor Brian Hornbuckle, who graded students on their participation in the symposium, met with assistant professor Elizabeth Swanner, advisor to the Environmental Science Graduate Student Organization, to discuss how they could enable students to present research virtually, and they decided to swap the research poster component for Three Minute Thesis presentations. Hornbuckle believes Three Minute Thesis helped students to improve their speaking skills and to understand their research in a new way.

“The shorter the presentation, the harder I think it is to do, because you have to be very focused,” he said. “You have to think about what’s really important, and what people seeing the presentation really need to know, and that’s hard to do. It’s a great exercise in helping students understand what their research is about.”

Hornbuckle also met with Lesya Hassall, program coordinator for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, to plan for allowing students and faculty to share feedback. They created Canvas discussion pages for each of the 24 students giving Three Minute Thesis presentations, so students could upload their presentations and others could leave comments and questions.

“We had several faculty participate, probably more than we would in an in-person poster session, so a couple students and some faculty suggested that maybe this is how we should do this in the future, or we could do this in addition to what we’ve done in the past,” Hornbuckle said.

Ultimately, the collaborative efforts of students, faculty, and staff allowed the virtual research symposium to run smoothly—and led to new ideas for how it might be improved next year.

When we’re looking for positive outcomes from all these negative things that have happened, this is definitely one of those things that we would’ve never done until we were backed into a corner and had to,” Hornbuckle said. “And it turned out really well.”

Tags: environmental science, interdepartmental program