A person posing for a portrait with trees and hills in the background.
Sara Debab's research took her to Galax, Virginia, where she investigated minority populations’ access to medical care and other health-related resources. (Courtesy photo)

With the pandemic limiting large gatherings, VCU’s undergraduate research symposium goes virtual

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Sara Debab, a junior in the College of Humanities and Sciences, wants to attend medical school after graduation and was looking to hone her research skills last year. She had an opportunity to participate in a project that looked at minority populations’ access to medical care and other health-related resources in rural Virginia. 

The research took place in Galax, which has a large Latinx population. According to census data, 16% of the town’s 6,000 residents are Latinx. Debab’s work focused on asset mapping, where community resources are identified and geographically mapped, showing the locations of community groups, health clubs, grocery stores and health care facilities.

“All of these businesses play a role in someone’s health,” she said. “That is why I loved my project. It looked at so many things, not just doctors’ offices.”

Normally, undergraduates who participate in such research are able to display their work at VCU’s annual research symposium in the spring.  Students create posters with research results and discuss the work with peers and members of the VCU community. The COVID-19 pandemic caused this year’s event to move from spring to fall. And now, given the challenge of holding a large gathering during the pandemic, the rescheduled event is likely to look different as well. 

Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry in the VCU Office of the Provost, organizes the symposium each year, and has been working with colleagues to move the event online. He wanted students to have a platform to display their work. Normally, the posters are archived through a system within the university library, but Hill wanted other ways to make the information available. He decided to have the work both archived at the library and available online through a website. 

He reached out to Tom Myrick, assistant director of strategic communications, who works on digital communications projects. They created a website where the posters are currently displayed, allowing students to receive some much-deserved recognition and giving the community easy access to the research.

“We have done things like this in the past, but this is a much larger project,” Myrick said. “Normally, something like this would just be a supplement to the symposium.” 

The symposium is an important part of an undergraduate research project, Hill said. The event most likely is the first time students meet with the public and discuss their work. They must learn to talk about the subject with people who are not familiar with the topic as well as those who are trained in the field. 

“As a student, a first research project is a rite of passage, and part of that is fielding questions,” Hill said. 

Xavier Moore, a senior double majoring in chemistry and biology and a student in the Honors College, studied a protein associated with prostate cancer through VCU Massey Cancer Center, and was grateful for the experience. He learned about the process of formal research and was pleased that the university was able to find a way to publicly display his work, but said it was hard not to have the same forum as previous years. 

“It was a little bit disappointing to get some interesting data and not to be able to present it at the symposium,” Moore said. “I would have liked the opportunity to talk with other researchers. But you can’t do anything about the situation, so you can’t get too worked up about it.”

Hill realizes that some students are disappointed, but he is working hard to make sure they get a full experience. Several students were not even able to complete their projects because labs shut down when campus closed in the spring. 

“I’m proud to celebrate the work that was completed, but also acknowledge that work was not completed due to the circumstances,” Hill said. “We will always welcome projects that are not completed and still in progress.”

Debab is happy that her work is displayed on the website and understands the challenges faced by the university. She knows her research is a timely topic given that minority populations are more impacted by the novel coronavirus, and she hopes the work can help the Latinx population in Virginia.

“I’m so grateful to Herb [Hill] and the others who helped us get our information out there,” Debab said.