Before social distancing and compulsive hand sanitizer use became a part of her daily routine, Lauren Breach spent her time walking around campus pushing a rickety cart of scientific equipment.
As a part of a Freshman Research Initiative stream called Urban Ecosystems, Breach spent hours at Waller Creek getting her hands dirty with sludge and mud, collecting water samples and learning the ins and outs of scientific research.
“It was like going to a super fun summer camp, and, although it was work, it rarely felt like that,” said Breach, a human development and family sciences sophomore and Urban Ecosystems lab mentor.
Instead of conducting research at ecosystems around campus, students in the program now collect data from wherever they may be taking classes. Breach said she spends time on Zoom helping new students as they do research from across Texas.
With most on-campus labs shut down, there are limited opportunities for students to engage with science. However, Stuart Reichler, a College of Natural Sciences associate professor, has made it his mission to continue research with his stream, Urban Ecosystems, in whatever way he can.
This semester, Reichler expanded his program from 20 to 50 students, who can now collect data from wherever they are, including cities such as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Laredo.
As a part of Urban Ecosystems, students go to green spaces in their area, take measurements, draw maps and catch bugs. With the help of online instructors, they learn how to conduct research.
“People who are on and off campus are having the same experience … (and) while the green spaces are different, the interaction with data collection and mentor meetings is exactly the same,” Reichler said.
Before COVID-19, there was no reason to expand data collection beyond Austin, but Reichler said the change has benefited the program.
“Now, we can have more confidence in our conclusions because our data will come from wider geographic locations,” Reichler said.
In the Urban Ecosystems stream, students study the interactions between humans, infrastructure and nature.
“The program has two main goals,” said Angela Lopez, a chemistry junior and Urban Ecosystems lab mentor. “First, to analyze different green spaces and see what role things (such as) carbon sequestration, tree diversity and human impact play in our urban ecosystems.”
She said the second objective is to teach students how to conduct research like actual scientists.
“We don’t let people do science until they’ve spent years learning science history and theory,” Reichler said. “It’s horrible.”
The College of Natural Sciences is offering 26 Freshman Research Initiative programs this fall on topics such as biodiversity, antibiotics and behavioral neuroscience. According to the College of Natural Science’s website, nearly half of all first-year students in the college join a research stream.
"In my first year working with (Freshman Research Initiative), we went on a trip to a local ranch," Lopez said. "We spent the day collecting data but also chatting and having fun."
While it’s impossible to recreate the program’s same social aspect, they have been able to sustain community spirit by bringing in speakers, Lopez said.
“Being able to listen to experts talk about these topics has been really helpful,” Lopez said. “It’s one of the best parts of online learning.”
Lopez said while COVID-19 may make it difficult to work in a lab, it’s also allowed for research to expand and improve virtually.
“With or without COVID-19, I hope this project continues," Reichler said. "You can do it on your own, on your own time, and you don’t have to go anywhere special. It’s great.”