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Students finish honors projects amid pandemic delays

May 14, 2021

As a compressed and atypical academic year comes to an end, some graduating seniors are wrapping up their honors projects despite delays caused by limited access to laboratories and difficulty obtaining sources remotely.

For seniors conducting scientific research, the pandemic’s biggest impact on their work was the closure of on-campus labs last summer. During a normal year, many students hoping to pursue honors projects participate in fellowships the summer before their senior year, during which they receive training in the use of lab equipment and begin conducting the preliminary research for the projects they complete during the academic year.

Chloe Renfro ’21 is finishing a computational chemistry honors project on the accuracy of pseudopotentials for the measurement of binding energies. Due to the lab closures last summer, she instead had to receive lab training and begin conducting research during the fall semester while simultaneously taking a full course load.

“I was [at Bowdoin] in the fall, and I’d meet my advisor in the lab once a week—she would help me use the software, and then I could go into the lab on my own and use it if I needed to,” Renfro said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Usually if you get trained in the summer, you’re in there every single day, so it’s a lot faster.”

For Renfro, this delay resulted in less time to finish collecting data and perform her lab-based research, and she has yet to compile the full results of her project. She hopes to finalize her research this summer but said that the process has been frustrating.

“Working with what we had was difficult. There were a lot of unknowns and a lot of waiting to see what would happen, but you also have to have some forgiveness for yourself,” Renfro said. “On the other hand, I was also super close and just not quite there to getting all the results I could have gotten—but I don’t know … how much of that was in my control.”

Renfro also described how the quality of her project was affected by the pandemic. Her final paper is about thirty pages shorter than others she has read, simply because she doesn’t have her results yet. Renfro said that many of her friends are in similar situations.

Wesley Hudson ’21 submitted his honors project in biology on analyzing genes involved in cellular fusion in plants last week. Hudson said in a Zoom interview with the Orient that although his project wasn’t significantly impacted during the academic year, it was affected, similarly to Renfo’s project, by his inability to do research over the summer.

“[Working over the summer] is really helpful because you can do a lot of your data collection without really needing to worry about classes, so that was kind of a hit,” Hudson said. “I think a lot of people felt that not being able to be in the lab over the summer definitely had an impact on … the breadth of the research [they] were able to do.”

Some students, like history major Archer Thomas ’21, were able to conduct research more easily from off campus.

“Mine was relatively easy to do remotely last semester … because it involved a lot of books and things [that] were already published, as opposed to primary source research and archival research,” Thomas said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “My niche is intellectual history, [which] is not so archive-oriented.”

Despite this, Thomas said he still experienced setbacks because of pandemic-related inconveniences, such as mail delays that prevented him from incorporating certain sources into his project.

Thomas felt that planning ahead—sometimes weeks in advance—for sources hampered his ability to explore his topic as deeply as he could have had he had more immediate access to sources and been able to be more spontaneous.

“With honors projects, you ideally want people to go wherever the project takes you, so having to plan weeks ahead is problematic sometimes,” Thomas said.

He also expressed sympathy for fellow students conducting honors projects in the history department who were unable to travel to their countries of interest.

“I feel pretty bad for other people who are also doing honors in the history department, just because if you’re doing [an] honors project on another country, then you’re basically out of luck—you have no access to those primary sources, and you can’t really do the project to the extent that you would want to,” Thomas said.

However, there was at least one silver lining to completing an honors project during the pandemic. Thomas said that because of the lack of social gatherings to distract him, he was able to focus more on writing and researching for his honors project.

“I actually felt like there was a lot more breathing room than I think there would normally be for an honors project, which is great because I can write better when I only have to write when I feel like writing,” Thomas said.

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