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Prospective doctoral students SOAR with special Laney programs

Emory’s James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies hasn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic keep them from connecting with prospective students. Shifting the school’s summer research program and preview visitation day to virtual formats allowed them to enroll their highest-ever number of participants.

Choosing where to apply to graduate school is an important decision at any time, but especially in the midst of a pandemic when health and safety restrictions keep prospective students from visiting campuses. Emory’s James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies (LGS) alleviated some of that uncertainty by hosting its second annual “Learning about Laney” preview visitation day.

The virtual visit, held Sept. 21, was hosted by Laney-EDGE (Emory Diversifying Graduate Education), an initiative within LGS. The program is designed to familiarize prospective LGS scholars with the school’s graduate programs and provide insight into the life of a PhD scholar. LGS faculty, staff and current graduate scholars hosted virtual sessions throughout the day, including mini-symposiums that allowed approximately 60 potential LGS students to learn more about their graduate programs of interest.

“Despite seeing us in ‘pandemic mode,’ you need to know that we are delivering on all our priorities, all of our promises, all of our intentions on diverse excellence,” Dean Lisa Tedesco assured participants during her welcome. “Throughout the pandemic, our support for doctoral education has not decreased, it has not wavered. You cannot be a leading research university like Emory without the deep commitments to research, scholarship and doctoral education.”

Reaching diverse prospective students

Holding large-scale programs virtually wasn’t new for the Laney-EDGE Initiative. They used a virtual approach this summer, holding their 10-week Summer Opportunity for Academic Research (LGS-SOAR) Program online, finding ways to expand offerings and serve more scholars than in years past.

LGS-SOAR offers undergraduate students from other institutions the opportunity to engage in graduate-level academic activities and conduct research with LGS faculty in a variety of settings, while also developing personal and professional skills and gathering information about graduate education at LGS.

“LGS-SOAR normally allows a non-Emory undergraduate student to experience Emory’s campus and participate in top-notch research, which is needed when pursuing any graduate program,” says Amanda Marie James, LGS’s chief diversity officer and associate dean for diversity, inclusion and community engagement. “This year we transformed LGS-SOAR into a completely remote instructional program. This enabled us to offer the program to a larger cohort of prospective LGS scholars.”

The resulting numbers were impressive: 207 students participated. LGS-SOAR is only three years old, launching in 2018 with the first cohort of five students.

“I think having access to this program despite the pandemic really appealed to students who wanted to participate,” James says. “Many sessions ran past the allotted time — even as much as 45 minutes over — because students wanted to continue asking questions and sharing with each other.”

Restructuring LGS-SOAR for 2020 allowed for different layers of participation:

  • Some visiting scholars still engaged remotely with faculty they were paired with pre-pandemic. These scholars also participated in the LGS-SOAR Professional Development and Research Ethics course.
  • Scholars who were initially matched with faculty but whose research interests did not translate as well to a remote format engaged virtually in discipline-specific lectures, writing conferences, debates and presentations that mimicked the rigors they would encounter throughout graduate study; they also participated in Professional Development and Research Ethics.
  • Scholars who were seen to have promise but were unable to be matched with a faculty member prior to the pandemic shutdown were given the opportunity, because of the virtual format, to access recordings of the professional development sessions, ethics sessions and weekly “fireside chats” with James.

“We love to interact with the students in person, so we did miss that,” notes Naima Barton, program coordinator for diversity recruitment and community engagement. “But because these students are focused and want to enhance their research skills, our time with them via Zoom was very productive.”

Melissa Berrio, a student from the University of Florida, agrees that the program was valuable despite the distance challenges. Working with Cynthia Derdeyn, a professor in the Emory School of Medicine, and her lab group at the Emory Vaccine Center introduced Berrio to the types of experiments she would conduct as an immunology PhD student. The program also introduced Berrio to the idea of pursuing an MPH/PhD dual degree in epidemiology and immunology.

“After discussing my new interest in a dual degree, Dr. Derdeyn and my host lab introduced me to MPH students so I could gain more insight on what that degree entails and whether it would be the right fit for me,” Berrio says. “I felt the support and enthusiasm toward science and empowerment from everyone involved despite the distance.”

That sense of empowerment is part of why Derdeyn participated as an LGS-SOAR mentor. “I want to encourage young scientists and let them know that all kinds of people — regardless of gender, race, ethnicity — can be successful in research settings,” Derdeyn explains. “LGS-SOAR expands their view of academic research and gives them new experiences.”

Going beyond research

While LGS-SOAR organized the professional development sessions, the Emory SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) program through Emory College of Arts and Sciences coordinated current and former LGS graduate fellows to lead sessions focusing on research ethics. In these sessions, they discussed mentorship, data management and research conduct with the students each week of the program. Emory SURE is directed by Cora MacBeth, assistant dean of sciences, and Tim Raines, associate director of undergraduate research programs.

They drew examples for case studies from various disciplines and institutions, both academic and nonacademic.

“The research session on ethics and mentoring demonstrated how highly Emory holds honor and respect, not just academic rigor,” Berrio says. “That impressed me.”

Chira Levy, a Pomona College neuroscience major, also was impressed with all aspects of LGS-SOAR. “When I first learned of LGS-SOAR's transition to remote learning, engaging in weekly lectures on professional mentorship was the last thing that I was expecting,” he says. “But Dr. James and all of the LGS-SOAR team somehow made that happen.”

“Given the state of the world, it would have been easier to cancel a program like this completely, but they didn't,” he adds. “And for that, I am deeply grateful and impressed. This program has helped make graduate school less of an elusive goal of mine and more of a tangible one.”

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