Becoming a Researcher During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Becoming a Researcher During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Research is defined by the unknown. From scientific breakthroughs to art interpretation, research subjects are as diverse as research methods. Whether it be spending hours on the library floor exploring archival data, or treating the laboratory as a secondary home for months on end to run experiments, typical research activities greatly vary between the disciplines.
Samuel Mercer. Photo credit: Stephen Mercer.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused tumultuous economic and social disruptions and unprecedented challenges throughout the world. Research was no exception. Students and faculty involved in research at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) adopted the recommendations of state and national officials to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, most undergraduate students could not remain on campus to conduct research, whether in the library, the lab, or elsewhere. As a first-year chemical engineering major beginning to pursue research opportunities, I was one of the many undergraduate researchers affected. Adapting to the abrupt changes of the pandemic was a difficult and unexpected obstacle. Despite the hurdles, I still grew a profound passion to pursue research through experiences that taught me how to accept and address problems muddled with uncertainty.
In August 2019, I began my research journey through the UNH Innovation Scholars Program on a computer science project titled “Wireless Data Processing System for IoT-Enabled Devices" at the UNH InterOperability Laboratory (IOL). The first-year students in the Innovation Scholars Program learn research skills by brainstorming and solving a research problem of choice. I joined the program’s internet engineering cohort and worked alongside three other students to solve an issue with data collection for water sensing. Remote sensors were commonly used to track important water quality data, such as temperature and pressure. However, my team believed that such sensors could be improved by establishing wireless connectivity with each sensor, allowing for easy access to each sensors’ data anywhere, anytime. We planned to equip these sensors with wireless modules (which we would develop) to collect data, transmit it to a server, store it in a secure database, and display it on a website. Once we developed the technology to wirelessly process data, we would coordinate project prototype, testing efforts with other undergraduate researchers at the UNH Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory (COEL), who were deploying a water quality sensor along the Oyster River in Durham.
While continuing to work on my Innovation Scholars project in January 2020, I began to work on a new project with chemical engineering assistant professor Nan Yi that focused on catalysis, a subfield of chemical engineering. Because our work began before the beginning of the pandemic, our original proposal to the UNH Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program (REAP) planned for laboratory research over the summer of 2020. My project was titled “Direct Conversion of Methane to Methanol Over Gold Catalysts.”
Catalysts facilitate chemical reactions and affect reaction rates, which subsequently affect chemical kinetics and other molecular interactions. Theoretically, catalysts could improve the economic viability of the conversion of methane to methanol, a highly sought-after industrial process. The key to solving this process lies within the complex chemical properties of the methane to methanol reaction. The process requires a reaction with an oxygen species (such as oxygen gas), which is referred to as methane oxidation, to produce methanol. Methane is relatively inert, requiring large amounts of energy to enable reactivity and, therefore, high costs to produce methanol. Lowering the energy input to save money can be achieved by deploying catalysts.
However, experimental results show that the presence of a catalyst reduces the amount of methanol produced. As such, low-temperature methane conversion depends on how the properties of the chosen catalyst may influence methane oxidation to maximize methanol production. My REAP project investigated whether a heteropoly acid catalyst modified with gold nanoparticles would produce more methanol than other tested catalysts. Verifying my hypothesis required a phased research approach divided into three parts: catalyst synthesis, activity testing, and product analysis. Each of these phases required laboratory instrumentation.
When I began working on both the Innovation Scholars project and my REAP project, I was an amateur researcher. I pictured research as working in a laboratory, tinkering with tools and instruments to justify hypotheses and to collect valuable data. These notions were what I defined as “traditional” components of the job. I thought of other research approaches as “nontraditional.” These premature perceptions were quickly reshaped as my two projects, which typically would require instruments only available in the laboratory, had to be completed remotely. As such, I progressively realized that research was much more than laboratory work.
Shutdown and Modification
In March 2020, both of my projects were ongoing when the global pandemic unfolded. The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New Hampshire on March 2, and by March 18, classes at UNH were shifted to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. Additional provisions extended to campus research laboratories. For months, priority access was granted only for essential research activity. Undergraduates faced a new unknown, life during a pandemic, in addition to the existing unknown, the research problems they were studying.
When I left campus to return home in March 2020, there was uneasiness in both of my research groups. Planned traditional approaches were upended. Without a laboratory to test hypotheses and to experiment, both projects shifted to an entirely online model. For the remainder of March, my research groups developed contingency plans to continue making progress before returning to campus. Initially, we hoped that UNH would return to normal operations after at most one month. In the meantime, I focused on adapting to this new Zoom format to continue making steady research progress.
The Home Laboratory
My immediate focus after the campus shut down was my Innovation Scholars project. By April, I arranged space at home into a makeshift laboratory. The space was outfitted with the appropriate tools to assemble the wireless devices and physical shells for the water-quality sensor developed by the Chase Ocean Engineering Lab research group. Every week, I communicated and coordinated with my research cohort and advisors to divide tasks and to lay out a flexible project development timeline. I squeezed in hours before, after, and between my Zoom classes to update Python or HTML code, modify the physical sensors, rewire connections between the sensor modules, and develop the transmitter-backend-frontend data processing system. Occasionally, I still faced the traditional research squabbles: catching software errors, fixing circuity, or facing issues of which I had no prior knowledge. In those cases, I investigated online forums, read through documentation, and continuously tested code to understand the system's issues and find successful workarounds.
The author’s first working synthesis device prototype for his Innovation Scholars project.
By late April, the team completed the prototype and was ready to deploy it along the Oyster River in Durham. Unfortunately, the continued spread of COVID-19 elevated pandemic restrictions, and our team couldn’t implement the robust prototype at the desired testing site. This hurdle did not limit our prototype testing though. I decided to reconfigure the sensor to measure two environments with objectively different temperatures and pressures: the atmosphere and the conditions of a small bucket of water. Hypothetically, when I repositioned the sensors from the open air to the water, our website would display changes in temperature and pressure. After resolving a few startup errors due to the new modifications, I activated the system and monitored both the physical sensors and my coding terminals with my team over Zoom. We watched the system simultaneously collect and display data autonomously on our website for the first time. Success!
Although the obstacles created by COVID-19 disrupted my team’s plans, we were still able to develop a viable solution for our research problem. Attempting to improvise prototype development and testing from home taught me that research was not limited by technology or instrumentation, but rather by ingenuity. This seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s different with experience. Continuously obtaining unsatisfying results and facing unexpected obstacles was grueling and difficult for me to adapt to. Nonetheless, tenacity and teamwork were the most important factors in my group’s research success, traits that would also be especially important for my summer research in catalysis.
The Virtual Library
After completing my Innovation Scholars project in the spring of 2020, my research focus shifted to catalysis. With acceptance to the UNH REAP program, Dr. Yi and I planned to begin research in summer 2020. However, the pandemic was worsening, and most laboratories were still restricted to essential research only. This led our research group of four undergraduates from Dr. Yi’s lab to adopt a virtual format that would allow us to make progress without gathering experimental results. Each of us was either an awardee for REAP or for another UNH undergraduate research program. With our combined passions, we were grouped together to debate, share, and learn the essentials of applying the theories of catalysis to laboratory instrumentation to produce and analyze our own experimental results. This synergy was crucial; it broadened our perspectives and knowledge and helped us funnel and differentiate between critical information related to our specific projects, all under the umbrella of catalysis.
The author working in Dr. Nan Yi’s research laboratory in spring 2021. Photo credit: Katherine Metzger.
Every week, Dr. Yi met with my group over Zoom to discuss literature, prepare presentations to practice technical communication, and make hypotheses based on our own theoretical computations from our individual projects. We prepared for our meetings by reading the general literature that Dr. Yi assigned, such as laboratory manuals or crucial scholarly articles within the discipline, and by taking the foundations of what we learned to look into more complicated concepts. For example, my group learned about a catalyst synthesis technique called impregnation. From there, I independently familiarized myself with how to apply impregnation to methane conversion. Using many different virtual archives and resources through universities, private research institutions, and journals to understand the subtleties of the process, I developed my own unique laboratory approach.
Formally, this method of research is known as a literature review. Literature reviews are essential for beginning a study in order to determine what topics need further research. Paper after paper, I surveyed over a century of research in methane conversion and charted data, compared experiments, pinpointed peculiar patterns, and correlated relations between core chemical principles. Through this "nontraditional" method alone, I began to realize the profundity of a career in research and how much there is left to be discovered. Research is much more than finding answers. My reading showed me the complexity of the challenges that previous and current scholars face in understanding catalytic systems, where the results can be equally as baffling before and after laboratory trials. Without this reference, it would have been difficult to begin establishing my own research approaches and to pinpoint the issues that needed further study, which I would now be able to investigate in the laboratory with a stronger holistic skillset.
The Versatility of Research
Becoming a researcher during the COVID-19 pandemic taught me that research is neither definitive nor contained. Research constantly adapts. As I revised my proposals and plans to adapt to the pandemic circumstances, I adopted research approaches that were equally able to advance my work. I learned that there is no right, wrong, or traditional method that must be employed in the pursuit of a solution. In my case, the evolution of my research illustrated just how fruitful unorthodox approaches could be. Even as projects were derailed by unforeseen circumstances, devising new methods to overcome these obstacles not only allowed me to establish stronger groundwork for research, but also provided me a higher degree of understanding. Building a mindset to think around these problems was crucial. By realizing the broadness of uncertainty in the scientific process, I was intrigued and motivated to continue exploring the unknown. Having the constant freedom to fail, revise, experiment, and explore has quite the reward, despite the rigorous and grueling pathway to achieve it.
As the pandemic lessens around the world, the at-home methods I employed are slowly receding from my home and moving into my laboratory research at UNH. Although my Innovation Scholars project ended in May 2020, I have continued to develop the idea with the UNH Entrepreneurship Center (ECenter) through my newly founded organization, Eizent Innovations. My catalysis project funded by REAP officially ends in April 2021, but I will continue my research in methane conversion through other proposed projects over the next two years. With the skills gained from these projects, those to come, and the lessons I will learn along the way, I am tremendously excited to progress toward a career in research with a toolbox to solve each of the problems I face.
I am very thankful for the support I have received from my amazing mentors and peers, whom I greatly credit for helping me pursue research. First, thank you to the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research and Dr. Paul Tsang for their tremendous dedication to providing undergraduate research opportunities, even at the height of a global pandemic, to UNH students. Thank you to Mr. Dana Hamel, Dr. George Wildman, and Mr. Garrett Thompson for funding my research. Thank you to Dr. Nan Yi and Timothy Carlin for your dedicated mentorship and for allowing me to grow in my discipline, pursue many wonderful opportunities, and connect my interdisciplinary interests. Thank you to Dr. Alex Holznienkemper, Dr. Jeffrey Halpern, Dr. Alix Contosta, and Ian Grant for supporting and guiding me to pursue research, for transforming my work into practical applications, and for motivating me to pursue other co-curricular opportunities. Finally, thank you to my friends and family for continuously encouraging me to make the most of my time in college.
Author and Mentor Bios
Samuel Mercer came to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) from his hometown of Sanford, Maine, to study chemical engineering. He is a 2021 Goldwater Scholar and is involved on campus as part of the University Honors Program, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and the German Club. He is also the president of Eizent Innovations, an organization he cofounded that operates similarly to a startup company. Sam has a clear and ambitious plan for where his studies will lead him after he earns a bachelor of science degree in 2023. He aims to obtain a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and to conduct research in nanotechnology for applications in energy production processes. He also plans to advocate for legislative or economic developments that could help improve how energy is utilized and to teach at the university level. With those long-term goals in mind, he embarked on research projects that would help him build the needed skills, knowledge, and experience. Sam came to understand and appreciate the depth of work that has been done in the very small subfield of molecular catalysis through his work for the Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program (REAP). But he also learned lessons about research itself: the value and fun of a thorough literature review, the need for perseverance, and, by adapting to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new way of thinking about science.
Nan Yi began working at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in 2015 and is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. His teaching and research practices at UNH reflect an interest in catalysis science and a passion for STEM outreach, including both core chemical engineering courses and elective courses that address our energy choices and implications for the environment. Dr. Yi and Samuel identified a project to complete through the Research Experience and Apprenticeship Program (REAP) and began lab trainings in February 2020. Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought work in the lab to an end, Dr. Yi continued work with Samuel and his other mentees through their “virtual laboratory” during the summer of 2020. Since 2015, Dr. Yi has worked with thirty undergraduate researchers, including awardees of grants through the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research at UNH, and those who received external fellowships and scholarships, including DOE-SULI fellowships and a Goldwater fellowship. Samuel is the first Inquiry author Dr. Yi has worked with. Of the value of writing for Inquiry, Dr. Yi says, “Science does not live in a vacuum. It is important to communicate science information with the public in a way that is relatable and digestible…increased public awareness facilitates support for new technologies and further research.”
Copyright 2021, Samuel Mercer