BUILD PODER Delivers Research Training to Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Alina Adamian

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced California State University, Northridge to shut down its campus in the spring, CSUN’s BUILD PODER program faced a particular challenge. As the university’s largest NIH-grant funded research training and enrichment program, BUILD PODER had to find a way to fulfill its responsibilities to train, mentor and support students, which usually happens in the form of weekly meetings, hands-on research with faculty, and funding for travel to conferences and summer research programs. The program staff and administrators also had to rethink their plans for their approaching Summer JumpStart (SJS)— an intensive four-week entry-to-research training program—for the incoming cohort of 33 students.

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting of the 33 students participating in CSUN BUILD PODER
A screenshot of a Zoom meeting of the 33 students participating in CSUN's
BUILD PODER program.

“We wanted to ensure that our students had a full and enriching summer experience,” said Gabriela Chavira, a principal investigator of the grant and co-director of student training. “We didn’t want them to miss out on the experiences that all previous cohorts had.”

For the incoming BUILD PODER students, which included 23 CSUN students and 10 community college students, Chavira said it all began with preparation. The program staff prepared “goodie bags” for all students, which contained everything they would need for SJS. One bag contained everything they needed for their research training methods. For the health sciences and social science students, the bag included manuals for software such as SPSS and NVivo, and a manual from the American Psychological Association (APA), which help facilitate an introductory course in social science research, including qualitative and quantitative methods.

“For our biology, biochemistry, and microbiology students, the challenge at hand was about maintaining the hands-on training that normally takes place in a laboratory,” said Alina Adamian, STEM education specialist for BUILD PODER. “I wanted them to have their own mini-lab in their home and train properly.”

Their bag contained lab supplies, including a microscope and slides to perform DNA extractions, make agar LB plates to culture bacteria, swab for microbes, isolate microbes, and perform gram staining to identify and differentiate between two large groups of bacteria with different structures. Students were also introduced to bioinformatics, and learned how to prepare research posters and give presentations.

All students received a second bag with equally as important materials for student training—to support community building. It contained individually wrapped BUILD PODER “swag” such as branded face masks, lanyards, water bottles, and a t-shirt. Unwrapping each item was earned by the students, a tradition for all previous cohorts. Other items included popcorn and candy for their four movie nights and a painting kit for a virtual paint night.

The SJS program consisted of synchronous and asynchronous training workshops focusing on research skills development, research ethics training, mentoring relationships, professional conduct, and maintaining wellbeing. To prevent “Zoom fatigue,” they divided each day’s programming into daily three- to four-hour long modules, followed by “On-Your-Own” modules consisting of prerecorded videos and assignments that students could complete anytime during the week. All BUILD PODER principal investigators and staff facilitated various workshops.

Painted portrait of a woman wearing a mask with the BUILD PODER logo and her fist is raised in a social justice pose
As part of BUILD PODER's community building activities,
​​students attended a Paint Night where they all painted a
scientist. Supplies for the paint night were included in the  
goodie bags. 

To develop a sense of belonging and inclusion, staff were mindful in developing exciting and interactive community-building activities. They ranged from competitive games that foster teamwork among students such as their version of Family Feud and “Name That Throwback,” as well as critical race theory focused activities like the privilege spectrum exercise.

Staff said they perceived increasingly high levels of student engagement throughout the series of activities due to the cumulative point system they introduced from the beginning. The community-building activities helped the incoming students get to know one another as well as the staff, supporting their culture of relationships so strong that many in the program consider each other as family. They hosted a game night where students were separated into breakout rooms that were facilitated by new or continuing students. This allowed new and continuing students to interact with students outside of their cohort while encouraging them to volunteer for and warm up to leadership roles in an informal setting with their peers.

They even managed to hold their annual SJS field trip remotely, through an interdisciplinary Virtual Toxic Tour of the San Fernando Valley developed by CSUN faculty members in geography, health sciences and history.

For their 42 continuing students, many of their summer programs were canceled, so they quickly began working on alternative research plans for the summer. Typically, most students leave CSUN to participate in undergraduate research experience (URE) programs at research institutions across the country. Some attend programs at BUILD PODER’s research partner institutions such as Stanford University, University of California, San Diego, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Drexel University, and University of North Texas Health Science Center. Others create their own summer research experience funded by BUILD PODER, with a few students remaining at CSUN working with their faculty mentors.

Two of their research partner programs, Stanford’s Summer Research Program (SSRP) and UCSD’s Summer Training Academy for Research Success (STARS), converted their programs to remote training. In addition, BUILD PODER reached out to faculty in CSUN’s health sciences and psychology departments who developed COVID-19 related research projects. Other students participated in the BUILD Research Collaboratory (BRC), a summer data research program organized by the BUILD program at San Francisco State University. All students conducting research over the summer are expected to submit their findings to present their research at professional conferences.

“In all, we are very happy with the way the summer turned out," Chavira said. "I am grateful to the entire team for coming together to provide an enrichment summer experience for all students.”

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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