Beyond BUILD: Continuing Scientific Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Melissa Simon

When the impact of COVID-19 caused universities to shut their doors and transition programs online, student researchers were left in a bind for conducting the work necessary to move forward in their education.

BUILD sites throughout the Diversity Program Consortium (DPC)—a network of institutions funded by the National Institute of Health to develop innovative, effective approaches to research training and mentoring for those in the biomedical research field—stepped up their game to provide meaningful virtual learning experiences for student scholars participating in their programs across the country.

Typically, student scholars in BUILD would participate in a variety of summer research and training programs at their own institutions or at programs at different research universities. But with COVID-19 causing universities to cancel or postpone in-person experiences, BUILD program leaders had to adapt and collaborate like they had never done before.

Necessity drove innovation, and "Beyond BUILD" is an example of one of the newly designed summer programs that provided virtual research experiences and support for students.

Continuing Scientific Research through Beyond BUILD

Jennifer Tabb, program coordinator for ReBUILD Detroit at Wayne State University, said they were looking for ways to provide productive and engaging experiences for research students that would also allow them to build their scientific writing skills. Beyond BUILD became an opportunity to create a program where students could continue building their skills as budding scientists, whether or not they had previous research experience.

Tabb said COVID-19 presented a unique challenge for students, but they were able to rise to it during the eight-week summer program. Because of the success of the virtual summer training program, she said the consortium plans to continue offering it as an option for scholars.

“There may be some students who might be apprehensive about returning to the field or the lab, so we want to ensure that we have a safe space for them to still have productive, engaging research experiences without having to feel concerned or anxious,” Tabb said.

In terms of having eight weeks to develop a topic, conduct the appropriate research and compile the data, Tabb said the timing was not long enough and many scholars have continued working with their mentors.

“Students have said doing this virtual work has made them want be more outspoken and more committed to the dissemination to the research they were engaged in,” she said. “Oftentimes you don’t take that next step to further develop it with the dissemination piece so I was really happy that they wanted to continue and further commit to the work that they had already been so engaged in.”

Twenty-eight students were paired with five mentors to conduct their research. Topics included air neurotoxin exposure in U.S. schools, associated stigmas and HIV medication adherence, social determinants of health inequities, HIV incidence in Latino youth in rural and suburban communities, and medical school impacts on diverse populations.

Students Alexis Taylor, Chinelo Njubigbo and Marilyn Williams of Wayne State University, Detroit, partnered with Eva McGhee, Ph.D., from Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles to create a community training program for the prevention and elimination of COVID-19.

“COVID is still very much affecting our communities and will be for a while longer until we are able to get a vaccine so we want to keep awareness going and remind people that it’s still a serious problem,” Njubigbo said.

For their research project, the team created an interactive training program that talked about the virus, symptoms and good hygiene behaviors. Participants also had the chance to ask questions and received a participation certificate upon completion.

The topic was initiated by McGhee, but she said it was really the students who took off running to develop the training.

“With us not being able to access the laboratory, I decided to focus on the community aspect of my research program and make an impact, especially on the underserved community,” McGhee said.

“The students developed modulars on prevention, meaning using good hygiene, social distancing and so forth. Prevention was the part where the vaccine modular came in,” she continued. “Hopefully this program made a big impact on the community in Michigan because it’s a great program.”

The biggest challenge was presenting the material for participants without internet access. Zoom provided the easiest platform and hard copy brochures were also printed and handed out.

While their virtual trainings via Zoom have has stopped for the time being, Taylor said the group plans to resume them shortly with Wayne State University faculty and students during the fall semester.

“We’re trying to refresh people’s memories of this pandemic even though we’ve gotten comfortable and into mode of school,” she said. They would even adapt the program for younger students to continue spreading the word, she added.

Njubigbo said she had initially applied to do her research at another BUILD site, but those opportunities were canceled due to the pandemic. While she was disappointed, she said she was grateful that Beyond BUILD was available.

"BUILD was still able to give us a great experience online and I'm very thankful for that because I feel like this project really improved my research skills and gave me the confidence to go out and conduct my own projects now," Njubigbo said.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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