'Is my camera on?' NOAA scholars overcome challenges in a 'virtual' reality
For the first time ever, NOAA Office of Education’s undergraduate scholarship programs hosted virtual internships due to ongoing COVID-19 prevention efforts. While nothing can replace a summer spent tracking salmon in Alaska, monitoring coral reefs in Hawaiʻi, or working alongside meteorologists at a weather forecast office, scholars stepped up to the challenge and came away with a whirlwind of experiences that provided new knowledge, skills, and even moments of self-discovery. As one scholar, Adriana Muñoz, put it, “It has been an exciting roller coaster endured from the comfort of a small corner of my room.”
Under ‘normal’ circumstances, after the close of the undergraduate summer internships, Ernest F. Hollings and Educational Partnership Program with Minority Serving Institutions (EPP/MSI) scholars travel to Silver Spring, Maryland, to present their findings at a symposium held by the NOAA Office of Education. Due to CDC social distancing guidelines during the pandemic, this year’s event looked a lot different — presentations were streamed to individual computers instead of projected on a screen, presenters were often separated by hundreds of miles from their nearest audience member, and talks usually began with “can everyone see my screen?” Following the talks, scholars reflected on their experiences. The first person to speak up captured the perseverance and resourcefulness shown by all of the scholars this summer in her opening phrase: “Well, this summer was weird, but …”
While each person had their own story about overcoming challenges posed by virtual internships, they were more excited to share what followed the “but” — new and valuable experiences. The scholars seized a variety of opportunities that came along with these experiences, including learning new topics, practicing new skills, seeing science in action, and even discovering resilience in themselves. Their resilience first became apparent when the internships they selected in the fall had to be adapted to a virtual format. While the tweaks to their projects were disappointing to scholars initially, some felt that they gained independence and others found an unexpected passion.
Hollings scholar Zoe Dietrich became completely immersed in her project with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a partner of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Building a model for the nitrogen cycle was not the project I was envisioning for this summer.” While she had been initially excited to work in a lab, by the end of the summer, she was thankful for the new experience, “I have fallen in love with my virtual modeling project! Creating the model feels like solving a massive, complex puzzle, and I cannot stop thinking about it.”
For some, this summer’s challenges made the complexity of research more apparent. Jessica Boyer, a Hollings scholar who modeled microplastic movement through coastal food webs during her internship with NOAA Fisheries Chesapeake Bay Office, reflected that “The virtual experience … showed me that there are other ways of producing meaningful research. I love that this project can have laboratory, field, and virtual experiences, demonstrating the interconnectedness of all types of research science.”
EPP/MSI scholar Monica Keim also observed interconnectedness while identifying challenges to salmon recovery during her internship with the NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Office. Keim saw how science informs policy, and how that ultimately impacts management of endangered species. “I learned some of the ways that salmon habitat restoration projects contribute to policy and management, gained an introduction into the inner workings of the Endangered Species Act, and explored many different restoration, research, and monitoring projects.”
At the close of their internships, scholars reflected on the new skills and knowledge they gained throughout their internships. The most common responses spoke to research-related skills such as data analysis and conducting surveys, using new software, learning to program or code, and the freedom they had to create and learn. However, while the format this year was novel, scholars were quick to point out that their virtual internships were internships first. “In any internship opportunity, it's a chance to push yourself to learn new skills, approach a project you didn't expect to, and push yourself to be resilient throughout any challenges,” said Hollings scholar Hannah Neumiller, who interned with the National Weather Service to promote Weather Ready Nation events geared towards youth.
Several scholars noted that the ability for internships to “go virtual” while also remaining fulfilling and worthwhile demonstrated the dedication of internship mentors and the scholarship teams. During her internship with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, EPP/MSI scholar Jezella Peraza also saw beauty in how the capability of technology used by NOAA facilitated cross-continent research, “It’s magnificent that I am on the West Coast of the United States and am able to study benthic habitats on the East Coast. To most individuals this would almost seem impossible, but because of technology and underwater imagery, I can make a profound impact related to NOAA’s mission.”
Ultimately, while the scholars faced additional challenges this year, they persevered with determination, grit, and a good sense of humor.