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2020 SURF Students Make History and Strive on During COVID-19 Pandemic

By Peter Scamardo
July 23, 2020 

As with everyone else in the world, the 2020 cohort of Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) students have faced struggles because of the pandemic. In the face of a public health crisis, this is still a historic period for SURF as a record 87 students have received fellowships from the Office of Undergraduate Research and Major Awards (OURMA).

Working around restrictions brought on by the pandemic has become just one more part of the research process.

“Cancelling the 2020 SURF program was not an option,” OURMA Associate Director Brittni MacLeod said. “In the face of a pandemic, we have seen how impactful a strong, cohesive research community can be. Our students deserve to have a sense of community at all times, even if we have to adjust the content delivery methods.”

This is the first time SURF is being conducted entirely online. As a result, students like senior computer science major Aisha Farooque have been unable to communicate with their advisers in person, something Farooque cited as the biggest difficulty of her research project. However, access to technology has allowed most projects to go smoothly.

Farooque, who is researching the gender gap among STEM majors and the lack of retention of female students, is using focus groups to get opinions from students about their experiences in computer science.

“This was done easily through Microsoft Teams,” Farooque said. “My faculty adviser set up a team where everyone could join, and I conducted the focus group through a conference call.”

Others, like mechanical engineering senior Benjamin Diaz, have faced no hiccups with their projects. Diaz’s study of computational fluid dynamics — an alternative to using wind tunnels in testing aircraft, wings, and space shuttle capsules — was always going to conduct simulations with computers.

Then there are those like biomedical engineering student Christian Alarcon, a SURF graduate and now a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) intern, leading a team of researchers in categorizing and analyzing brain data from children’s drawings. While the group has been unable to work together in person, the students have taken the initiative to create workshop sessions to share skills they have used in their projects.

“This was all voluntarily done and shows a highlight example of how we can break through the hurdles of online learning,” Alarcon said. “I’m definitely inspired. It shows that everyone is making use of what they have, just to teach us.”

The one major difference for the current SURF students is that the 2020 Undergraduate Research Day (URD) will be conducted virtually on Sept. 29. Many of the students have attended the URD every year they have been at UH, and said they will miss the chance to present their work in person.

Even so, OURMA sees the virtual presentations as a chance to give the students more freedom in their presentations. The students will be on their own schedules and have proper time to respond to questions presented to them.

“I will be doing my best to prepare myself for this virtual event by watching how others on YouTube have conducted URD,” Farooque said. “Hopefully, this will give me some confidence and give me a good picture of what to expect.”

Regardless, the students all voiced that participating in SURF during a pandemic has taught them the importance of being able to adapt to conditions and the importance of research. 

“Research is vital,” biochemical and biophysical sciences junior Sarah Attia said. “Research is ultimately what will save us from this pandemic and many other problems encountered by the modern world. I thrive to never stop learning and that is only possible when programs and people who are like minded strive on.”

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at UH seeks to provide funding for rising UH sophomores, juniors, and seniors to participate in a focused, full-time, 10-week research experience under the direction of UH faculty. Incoming freshmen who will be sophomores in fall 2021 are eligible to apply for the 2021 summer fellowship. However, students who will be graduating in spring and summer 2021 are not eligible for this program. No course credit will be offered for participation in this program, and students who have previously participated in the SURF program are ineligible to reapply. This fellowship is open to students of all disciplines. All full-time UH faculty members are eligible to participate as faculty sponsors (this precludes adjunct faculty).