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Research and the Real World: Reflections on Undergraduate Research during the Pandemic

Opportunities for undergraduate research within post-secondary institutions have undoubtedly been altered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several studies and reports have been released regarding the effect of the pandemic on research initiatives, with mixed perspectives on how student and other academic research has responded to the shift to virtual learning and research. According to one study from the University of Utah, the move online in Spring 2020 presented numerous difficulties for student researchers, including the inability to meet with research teams and mentors in person, a lack of motivation, and uncertainty about next research steps. The loss of research positions, too, was a reported struggle. Despite these challenges, 94% of the students surveyed did not resign from their research position.

The fact that so many student research initiatives across the academic world have continued in the face of the pandemic is remarkable. From the University of Utah to right here at Huron, students have found creative ways to conduct and share their research. The 2020 CURL Fall Exhibition, or Fall Ex for short, serves as one example of resilience, flexibility, and creativity in student research during the pandemic: amidst the shift to virtual research and learning, 80+ students participated. Their submissions, which included videos, infographics, photos of their workspace, and more, illustrated student-led and faculty-partnered research that was informed by and sought to address social and political happenings in the world—and it was all shared via Instagram.

A notable positive outcome of continued student research through the pandemic has been students’ opportunities and ability to connect their research to real-world events. 2020 CURL Fellowship winner Michael Sud is one such example: under the mentorship of Huron Professor Matthew Maxwell-Smith, Sud is completing a research project exploring globalization and the global supply chain within the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. His current efforts seek to answer how recent political movements and events, including the Brexit movement and the 2016 US election, have informed the UK and Candian public’s understanding of globalization. CURL consistently showcases impactful student research, but students like Sud’s ability and willingness to bridge the gap between the (online) classroom and the “real world” is especially impressive during the pandemic.

Continued access to research opportunities during the pandemic, such as research assistant positions or student-centred research programs, allows students to better understand and speak to things happening in the world. The ongoing student research supported and promoted by CURL this year demonstrates Huron students’ tenacity: they are taking advantage of research opportunities and using research to expand global awareness and learning in the face of the challenges and uncertainty the pandemic has brought.