Anne Showalter put on her interview suit, checked the Wi-Fi connection to her computer and took a seat at the desk in her bedroom. She logged into Zoom and waited.
After six years of researching metastatic breast cancer at UCF, she was ready to present her dissertation defense — the process where Ph.D. candidates must explain and answer questions about their research to earn their graduate degrees. But, like many doctoral candidates across the country and university, Showalter’s plans changed with COVID-19.
Instead of speaking face-to-face to a room full of peers and faculty, she lectured from an empty room to a computer screen.
Her mentor, Annette Khaled, head of UCF’s Cancer Research Division, says that as the date for Showalter’s dissertation defense neared, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, making social distancing the new norm.
“It became clear that we had to come up with an alternative plan, so Anne had two weeks to really put this together,” Khaled says.
Instead of being able to interact and highlight her PowerPoint presentation in-person on a large screen, Showalter had to practice how and when to refer to it online. She had to decide when to be onscreen so the audience could see her. She couldn’t move around the room or engage with the audience. She had to remain seated to stay in view of the webcam.
Presenting from home had other problems. “I was worried about the equipment and if everyone could hear me and whether my dog would bark or cat would walk over the keyboard,” Showalter says.
More than 30 family members, peers and faculty joined her recent video dissertation defense. Showalter couldn’t see everyone’s faces. She couldn’t glance around the room for reassuring nods or to gauge the listeners’ interest and understanding. The good news, though, was distant family and friends who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend the dissertation were able to log-in to the virtual version.
“My parents, brothers and grandmother could see my work,” says Showalter. Did they understand her research? “Oh not at all,” she laughs.
Dozens of UCF doctoral candidates are going through the same online process.
Justine Tigno-Aranjuez, assistant professor of biomedical sciences, who was on Showalter’s dissertation committee, also had Ph.D. student Mike Shehat present his work virtually. Shehat’s dissertation was on broadening the use of RIP2 protein therapies to treat inflammatory diseases.
Tigno-Aranjuez says she was nervous for both students. Dissertation defenses culminate years of research and as a faculty mentor, she was not physically there to offer support for the hour-long presentations.
“This is the time for students to shine because public speaking is really part of the program,” she says. “But it’s not the same as having a live audience, as it’s not as interactive.”
Even their after-dissertation celebrations are different. During this time of social distancing, instead of being able to celebrate with a large group of friends, Showalter said she stayed home and baked a cake to share with her spouse. She and Shehat said they will gather with friends and colleagues in person later in the summer.
Both Ph.D. candidates passed their oral defenses. Showalter has a teaching job lined up at Southern Arkansas University after graduation. Shehat will continue at UCF as a post-doc and work with Travis Jewitt on chlamydia research.
Tigno-Aranjuez praises the students for adapting to a new format in today’s COVID-19 environment.
“It’s the best we could do for our situation and it worked,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see them grow as scientists. I couldn’t be prouder.”