STAR Scholars 2021: A “Closer to Normal” Experience Despite Ongoing Pandemic

Nhat Nguyen working in the Nanobiomaterials and Cell Engineering Laboratory at Drexel University.
Nhat Nguyen working in the Nanobiomaterials and Cell Engineering Laboratory at Drexel University.

Second-year Drexel University student Nhat Nguyen had never done research like what he undertook for his STAR Scholars project this summer.

The materials science major worked in the Nanobiomaterials and Cell Engineering Laboratory managed by Hao Cheng, PhD, associate professor in the College of Engineering. Nguyen worked on ways to modify the surface of 2D materials to help decrease the immune response when injected into the human body for use in biomedical applications such as cancer immunotherapy.

It was tedious and frustrating, he admitted, testing one material under different conditions and with different solvents. Nothing worked out quite the way he wanted it to, but with each set back he knew he had to keep going.

“I feel like this has been such a journey,” Nguyen said. “It definitely came out not as what I expected, but it's also not bad because research is a long process. … Even though I had high hopes for myself, I think it is actually more realistic that I build up some kind of resilience for experimental failures and to be more consistent with the work that I do.”

In a way, Nguyen’s experience with his project paralleled some of the feelings and experiences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic: the importance of trial and error; things not working out the way they’re planned; moving forward despite uncertainty. They’re what coordinators had to undertake to keep the program going during such uncertain times on Drexel’s campus and within its research community.

Last year, the pandemic caused Drexel’s annual cohort of STAR Scholars — students who conduct faculty-mentored research in the summer following their freshman year — to take on fully remote work or defer their experience to a later date. Because of this, 140 students completed their STAR experience last month, and partook in a range of research opportunities spanning remote, hybrid and in-person modalities, as well as six-month part-time and three-month full-time timeframes. It took a lot of planning, flexibility and sacrifice for all students, mentors and coordinators involved.

“Considering all of the complications and the work it took to pull of this year’s program, I am extremely proud of how the program went this year,” said Jaya Mohan, director of Undergraduate Research & Enrichment Programs (UREP), a unit of the Pennoni Honors College which oversees STAR. “Our students were patient and resilient, and the UREP team and the University community that supports us were committed to delivering the best version of this program that we could, and I think it really all paid off in the end.”

Nhat Nguyen was invited by his STAR Scholars faculty mentor to stay on working for the lab even after the program ended.

Nguyen was glad to have the opportunity to do in-person research and train in the lab, working with equipment and fulfilling processes that were foreign to him when he started back in June, but became second nature by the end of the program 10 weeks later. And all throughout this timeframe, Nguyen said he and Cheng had a plan in place if ever they needed to transition to fully remote work over the course of the summer.

Cheng, who had mentored one STAR student before taking Nguyen under his wing, said these student researchers might be limited if they could not experience lab work.

“Overall, these students are motivated. [STAR] is a great opportunity for them to involve in research,” Cheng said. “The training will increase the possibility for them to find a good co-op position and help them to decide if research is the career they would like to pursue in the future.”

But for students like Emily Daly, a second-year international business and marketing major, conducting remote research was actually preferable. Daly assisted Clinical Professors of Business Dana D’Angelo and Jodi Cataline on studying the effectiveness of global classrooms, which are remote classes through which Drexel students work collaboratively with international students in other countries. Based on her own experience with a global classroom during her freshman year, Daly studied how such learning environments had beneficial psychological effects on students during a period when they felt particularly isolated due to the pandemic.

“The biggest impact were the social connections that they made while they were fully isolated in the virtual environment,” Daly said of the students she surveyed for her project. “A lot of students said it impacted them to want to continue global learning because they wanted to do more Intensive Courses Abroad (ICA) and study abroad.”

Because she was interviewing students living all around the country, Daly said it was easier to do remote research. However, she enjoyed getting together in person with other STAR Scholars to work or socialize, which was possible this year since STAR students were able to live on campus for the summer, either in Caneris or Bentley Halls (the latter of which is the new home for the Pennoni Honors College.

“Even though we weren’t doing research together, just learning about each other’s projects and being able to talk about the research, but also our own lives and making friendships,” she said.

Avani Kavathekar presenting her work studying urban heat islands at the STAR Scholars Summer Showcase on Aug. 26 on Drexel's campus.
Avani Kavathekar presenting her work studying urban heat islands at the STAR Scholars Summer Showcase on Aug. 26 on Drexel's campus.

For Avani Kavathekar, her hybrid project allowed her to make connections within the community. She worked with Environmental Engineering Professor Franco Montalto, PhD, on studying “urban heat islands,” specifically in the Hunting Park area of Philadelphia. Though most of her work was done virtually, including ample data analysis, she would once a week travel to the area to speak with residents and see how they were feeling about the heat. She said these conversations were more impactful to her research than just looking at the numbers, and helped validate and make her feel good about the work she was doing.

“It makes it feel like it’s important work because these people are going to be affected a lot more because of heat waves and climate change,” she said. “The research and the future work have been impacted by me talking with the residents. It kind of adds a sense of urgency to implementing these heat mitigation strategies and battling climate change.”

Rebecca Moroz, a second-year software engineering student who also completed a hybrid STAR project this summer, said she had hoped for an in-person opportunity after spending her full first year at Drexel living at home. However, what she got was the opportunity to help the ExCITe Center run a free STEAM education camp for middle schoolers in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone. Moroz put her software engineering background to use creating engaging activities for the students to complete through Minecraft.

On the days the camp was taking place, she was able to be in the office with coworkers in person, which she found very rewarding.

“I was just happy to have something that actively dealt with the same group of people, and I could sort of work with them and remember how to be a person before fall school starts,” she said. “When you’re in classes, it’s three months then a new group of people. It’s hard to really create those long-lasting relationships and just talking with people on a regular basis. So, being able to be hybrid was perfect for me.”

Another STAR Scholar presenting research at the Summer Showcase on campus.
Another STAR Scholar presenting research at the Summer Showcase on campus.

Mohan said she is glad the STAR Scholars program could provide students an experience this year that was “closer to normal” despite many variables. Even at the height of the pandemic, she said the opportunity to get involved with research so early in their college career and make meaningful connections with faculty and other experts can be truly transformative for the Dragons who participate each year.

Mohan added that the program is a two-way relationship that not only benefits student participants, but faculty who might earn valuable contributors to their research enterprises.

“By teaching our Drexel undergraduates that they have something valuable to add to their faculty mentors’ research agendas early on in their academic careers, we are investing in their potential to continue to contribute to Drexel’s research productivity and, eventually, to go out into their careers and represent Drexel well,” Mohan said.

For Nguyen, this certainly proved to be the case. He was invited by Cheng to stay on working for the lab after STAR, expanding the scope of projects he’ll work on and continuing to learn more and more.

“It is such a well-supported environment for undergraduate students to start to get really into the professional research environment,” Nguyen said of the STAR Scholars program opening this door for him.

“I [saw Nguyen’s potential] during the process as he tried to solve the problem by exploring different methods,” Cheng added. “He should be able to achieve his goal to get into a MD program after graduation if he can focus on research and course study.”