Students everywhere found summer plans disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Jobs and internships evaporated. Research in some labs ground to a halt. But not for everyone: These students from Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences are participating in virtual research this summer at major universities from their own homes during the pandemic.
Nguyen, a psychology senior, planned to spend her summer on the University of Pennsylvania campus after being selected through the Leadership Alliance and its Summer Research-Early Identification Program. Through a national consortium of universities that includes the eight Ivy League schools, the Leadership Alliance program aims to increase the participation of underrepresented minority groups in higher levels of education and research by providing undergraduates with internships to prepare them to apply to Ph.D. programs.
But as campuses closed around the country in March, Nguyen received emails from both Penn and the Leadership Alliance that her expenses-paid, eight-week residential research program could not proceed because of COVID-19.
“It was really a shocker to me because I was super excited,” she said.
Nguyen didn’t give up, and a couple of weeks later she emailed her contact and heard that the program would continue virtually and her spot was still available.
With her area of emphasis in industrial/organizational psychology, Nguyen knew the value of the opportunity at Penn: She is assigned to a lab in the Wharton School, the university’s world-renowned business program. Nguyen’s research with Professor Maurice Schweitzer’s group focuses on topics such as swearing and laughter in the workplace.
Though there was no longer any need for travel and housing expenses, Nguyen is still being paid for her work. She finds few difficulties conducting research remotely other than the time difference for the weekly 10:30 a.m. lab meeting.
In addition to working on research, Nguyen regularly connects with other Leadership Alliance scholars around the country for online professional development sessions.
“Each week on Mondays, for example, we have networking events where we meet different doctoral scholars and learn more about their research experience, their application process to get into grad school, their personal experiences,” she said.
Wednesdays include workshops with varying topics like navigating research during the COVID era or collaborative learning in a digital environment.
Thursdays are for recruitment fairs, the first of which was for Columbia University. At the end of the summer, all Leadership Alliance scholars are required to present at a virtual conference where Nguyen will present about her own personal projects.
“It’s such a great program,” she said.
Watkins, a sociology senior, applied for a handful of REUs, or Research Experiences for Undergraduates, and the first acceptance was from the University of Southern California’s Diversity, Inclusion and Access (DIA) JumpStart program. She seized the opportunity, and that proved to be a good decision when everything changed in mid-March.
“I started getting emails from other programs that hadn’t let out their decisions yet, and they were just canceling those programs,” Watkins said. “I was a little worried that USC would follow. But then after some time, they said, ‘We just want to let you know, we are still having it; this program is very important to us.’”
DIA JumpStart works with USC programs to invite diverse candidates from outside institutions to apply for 10-week summer research opportunities in various disciplines. The goal is to increase the pool of diverse Ph.D. applicants by providing academic and financial support as well as other professional development opportunities.
The project Watkins is working on, “Comparing the Effects of Voter ID Laws and COVID-19 on Immigrant Rights Organizations’ Strategies across State Political Contexts,” is led by Hajar Yazdiha, a USC assistant professor of sociology.
The research is not much different than what she might have done on campus, Watkins said, adding that by working remotely she can save the portion of her research stipend she might have spent for housing closer to USC and the time she might have spent commuting by train.
“Being able to do it virtually and at home is the most cost-effective and time-saving thing,” she said.
For the study on organizations’ approach to voting rights issues — a project that has added responses to the pandemic to its scope — Watkins works from a huge spreadsheet to collect data on organizations around the country.
“So, for instance, the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] in Athens, Alabama: Then we would sort through articles that are mentioning NAACP actions in that city and take all those articles and download them to our computer and upload that data to Google Drive and then to a cloud account so that’s all saved and collected in one location. We’re collecting what we will be later analyzing.”
Watkins arrived at Cal Poly Pomona planning to pursue law, but she now hopes to become a professor at a CSU campus.
“My first sociology professor was Dr. Mary Danico. I was straight out of high school and she was saying, ‘I’m doing research; if anybody is interested, please let me know.‘ And then I went up to her after class and said, ‘Hey, I’m interested.’” Though Danico doesn’t usually take first-year students on her research team, she soon allowed Watkins to shadow.
“Then after a quarter or so, I was able to be a research assistant. And I’ve been with that team ever since,” Watkins said. “She’s so amazing. I would not be pursuing a Ph.D. if I hadn’t met her.”
Karli Cheng (’20, psychology)
Cheng, who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in psychology in May 2020, is a Sally Casanova Scholar in the CSU’s California Pre-Doctoral Program. Designed to increase diversity among candidates for master’s and Ph.D. studies, the program provides an extended summer research opportunity for postgraduates.
Cheng is working remotely through UCLA, conducting paid research under UCLA Professor Anna Lau. She started her project with graduate students Stephanie Yu and Vivian Byeon in the Culture and Minority Mental Health Lab after carefully narrowing their focus.
“Through this process, I’ve learned a lot,” said Cheng, whose interests include the dynamics between parents and children, particularly in Asian American families. “When you’re working in a larger lab like at UCLA, the research that they do is on such a grand scale. I realized I couldn’t pick every question or topic I was interested in.
“This summer, I will be examining school climate, parental pressure and involvement, and mental health in relation to race and ethnicity, particularly in Asian and Latinx Americans youths.”
She is working with an existing dataset based on students from a Los Angeles area school district, as well as transcribing interview audio. Because the data had to be gathered while K-12 schools were in session, Cheng said her remote work is little different from what she would have done on the UCLA campus this summer.
She’ll take the GRE this fall as she prepares to apply to graduate programs in clinical psychology. And to gain experience that will strengthen her preparation, she’s seeking work as a crisis text line counselor and possibly as a case manager in a community health center.
As a first-generation college student, Cheng says she didn’t understand what a Ph.D. was before arriving at Cal Poly Pomona, where the faculty who have guided her include psychology professors Alejandro Morales, Erika DeJonghe and Robert Blumenfeld.
“Being from the Cal State system, I really like the very hands-on interaction and cherish the relationship I’ve had with my mentors,” said Cheng, who plans to become a professor and researcher as well as a practicing therapist.
“Being first-generation and going to a Cal State solidified the mindset for me that I really want to give back to the community that I came from, serving students who look like me or serving students whose parents didn’t go to college, similar to me.”