Authentic Research Experiences Amid The Pandemic

On a lovely spring day, as I was lying on the  Skinner Green  and soaking up the sun, my phone buzzed. It was an email from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) regarding my application for their Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. My heart dropped a beat when I glimpsed the content of the email and words could not describe enough how excited I was to hear that I would be joining a computational chemistry lab at Johns Hopkins University.

Picturesque Gilman Hall on the Johns Hopkins Campus (image from  Pixabay )

I first got interested in theoretical chemistry last fall when I had an opportunity to work on a polymer-related project using computational techniques at Mount Holyoke College. I decided to look for summer research programs related to this field. Fortunately, I had a classmate who suggested I apply for the CSN SURE. As I checked out the information on CSN computational labs, I was especially excited about the amazing work of Dr. Rigoberto Hernandez at Johns Hopkins, and I was eager to get some hands-on experiences with a nanoparticle-related project.Receiving that offer email from the CSN was genuinely delightful and excited me more than any of my other opportunities. I began to plan some fancy activities for my trip to Baltimore and could not help spamming my friends with all my silly thoughts about the summer at Johns Hopkins. I imagined walking along the hallway of graduate student offices in the Macaulay building, talking to graduate students about their Ph.D. life, getting started on an interesting project in the office, and surrounding myself with true scientists. What an awesome experience to have!

A portion of the computational lab in the Macaulay building at Johns Hopkins (photo by Rigoberto Hernandez).

But life always has unpredictable turns. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the States in the middle of the spring semester. Schools shut down, laboratories closed, and many internship plans began to fall apart. The attack of the virus turned every single life upside down and mine was no exception. Amid the chaos, I got the wonderful news that the CSN program was continuing virtually. Even better, although labs were closed, since the resources required for theoretical chemistry are mainly computers and software, I would still be able to do actual full-time science. 

But the excitement came along with concerns about the format of the research. As a newbie researcher, I believed that what I needed most was the interaction with a mentor and the socialization into the work culture of a typical research lab. I questioned whether or not remote research would allow me to gain such direct and practical experiences while I just stayed at home and stared at my laptop screen. Also, without in-person interaction, I feared that it would be difficult for me to keep tabs on all the assignments and stay in the loop, which would eventually...