laptop on the grass with Undergraduate research website on screen

Research fair will take place virtually this year

Undergraduate Research Committee and IT department members worked to convert this year's Undergraduate Research Fair and Exhibition to an all-virtual format so that the event could still take place despite the COVID-19 outbreak and the "stay-at-home" restrictions currently in place across the state.
By: Josh McAuliffe

DUNMORE – Penn State Scranton’s Undergraduate Research Fair and Exhibition is always among the most popular campus events of the spring semester, given its front-and-center focus on students’ intellectual and creative talents.

And so, it is entirely fitting that ingenuity ended up saving this year’s event.

To get around the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak that forced all campus and University activities online, the members of the Undergraduate Research Committee recently teamed up with the campus’ Information Technology (IT) department to convert the event to an all-virtual format.

The result is the Undergraduate Research Web Showcase, which will take place April 15-23 and feature the research fair’s judged Poster Project and Oral Presentation elements. However, the non-judged Art and Creative Exhibition, which made its debut at last year’s fair, will not be included.

The posters – and their accompanying abstracts -- will be available for viewing by the campus community and general public starting Wednesday, April 15, at the Web Showcase’s website,  The format will also allow visitors to leave comments for the student researchers.

Meanwhile, in order to ensure real-time interaction between the presenters and audience, the oral presentations will be held live in two ZOOM meeting rooms on Tuesday, April 21, from 4 to 5 p.m. The 10-minute presentations will only be accessible to the campus community and select family and friends of the presenters, while the participants’ abstracts will be available on the Web Showcase site.

All told, the event will feature 74 posters and six oral presentations, compared to last year’s 42 posters and nine presentations. A record 27 faculty members will judge the entries, with each poster assigned three judges and each oral presentation two judges, according to Dr. Jiyoung Jung, assistant professor of chemistry and Undergraduate Research Committee coordinator. Awards for each category will be announced Thursday, April 23.

The poster increase was a happy surprise, given the current circumstances, Jung said.

“Many students now have limited access to resources as everyone is working remotely at this moment, so we expected that there would be a smaller number of student projects compared to last year,” Jung said. “Since students had been preparing a while for this event, I do not expect any less quality compared to previous events. The committee members and I really appreciate the strong support from the research advisers in encouraging students to wrap up their work in great shape.”

When the campus switched to remote delivery in mid-March, the Research Committee members quickly got together on ZOOM to determine whether to move forward with the event. To help their decision making, they solicited feedback from students, who were highly in favor of an alternative solution.

“I believe students’ desire to have the event is one of the primary reasons why we decided to go to the virtual context,” Jung said. “By holding the event virtually, we can not only ensure the safety of participants, but also provide an opportunity for students to present their work to a broader audience.”

“A couple of my students, Jordan Symonies and Matt Moran, made a point that some professors required submission of their projects to the fair as part of their grades. This changed my mind, and since doing things virtually for me is relatively easy, I pushed for it strongly,” added Research Committee member Dr. Asif ud-Doula, associate professor of physics. “One disadvantage is that the students will not have the opportunity to explain what is on the posters since one can only put so much on a poster. But, nothing can be perfect, and we are making the best out of the current dire situation.”

Chief Academic Officer Durell Johnson, Ph.D., said he’s appreciative of the committee’s efforts to uphold the fair’s tradition and recognize student scholarship. It’s all in keeping with the campus’ view of undergraduate engaged scholarship as a broad disciplinary initiative encompassing the arts, engineering, humanities, social sciences and sciences, he said.

“In light of the current circumstances facing our campus, local, and national communities, continued engagement by Penn State faculty and students has ensured continuation of a quality Penn State education. Our effort to transition to a virtual Undergraduate Research Fair is one example of the campus’ efforts to ensure continued student engagement,” Johnson said.

Jung said the campus' Information Technology (IT) staff didn’t miss a beat in transferring the event to a virtual format. IT Director Marilee Mulvey and committee members Shannon Williams, web designer, and Suzanne Morgan, Academic Affairs administrative support assistant, were tasked with creating the website.

“The IT staff offered very strong support on this plan, and we cannot imagine a successful event without their help,” Jung said.

Mulvey said it was extremely rewarding to collaborate with the Research Committee on the website’s creation.

“The Research Fair is one of our largest academic events. Many of our students started their projects months ago, and knowing how much work they've already put into their projects, it was important to find a way to hold this event virtually to recognize their research activities,” Mulvey said. “IT has always been a part of this event, whether it was laminating posters, helping with setup, or assisting students with their poster printing. Committing our time and energy to creating a website to showcase the work was just a different way we could support this program.”

The poster projects will cover student research conducted in the categories of nursing, science, social science and technology.

Senior psychology major Gina Romano submitted the poster, “An Examination of Meditation and Effects of Mantra Meditation on College Students with Test Anxiety,” the research for which was inspired by her own meditation practice. She praised the Research Committee’s decision to go virtual.

“We are proud of our work and happy that we are granted an opportunity to still present it,” Romano said.

Junior biology major Adriana Modesto will present the poster, “Computational Chemistry for Reactivity Prediction and Visualizing Molecular Orbitals.” The Web Showcase, she said, will provide a safe and convenient environment to explore what other students have been working on over the past few months.

“It is a great opportunity to learn about things that we've always wondered about but haven't met the correct person to ask,” Modesto said. “Although I am not a chemistry major, I was able to do research on an important reaction that is used in many industries such as pharmaceutics. I'm interested in going to pharmacy school, so being able to do this research allows me to master and gain knowledge that will help me with that.”

The oral presentations will be broken up into two categories – “In War and Peace: Examining Relationships in Literature, History, and Cultural Studies” and “Where's the Finish Line?: Interrogating Limits in Student Writing, Literature, and Government.”

“We are confident that we can deliver a virtual format for the oral presentations that will illustrate the students' hard work and research,” said Dr. Kara Stone, assistant teaching professor in English, who coordinated the oral presentations with Dr. Kelley Wagers, associate professor of English.

Junior business marketing and management major Lauren Sciabbarrasi will draw upon her experience as a peer writing tutor with her oral presentation, "Assessing, Understanding, and Combating Writing Anxiety in the Penn State Scranton Writing Center.”

“I am so thankful for the opportunity to present my research in the midst of such a crazy time in our world, and so grateful the Penn State Scranton team made this transition possible,” Sciabbarrasi said. “I love research, and truly enjoy sharing my work and learning from other students. The dedication to the students’ hard work is really admirable and greatly appreciated.”

While the past several weeks have been challenging for the Research Committee, Jung emphasized it’s been a great learning experience that will pay long-term dividends for the entire campus community.

“I believe it has provided us with a valuable opportunity for everyone to adapt to new technology and a new format,” Jung said. “Our resilience to such challenging conditions is one of the main messages that we want to deliver to students, family and the community.”

For more information on the Undergraduate Research Web Showcase, contact Jung at [email protected].