At the Undergraduate Research Symposium, students presented work on smallpox inoculation, social and emotional learning, and more.
In the spring of 2020 Stephanie Reitzig, Class of 2022, was working as an intern at the Newberry Libraryʼs Center for Renaissance Studies. As a CRASSH scholar—funded by a College Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities grant—she was supposed to help prepare an exhibit scheduled for April 2020. But when the pandemic hit, the library closed.
Instead of the exhibit, Reitzig helped create a video series, Learning from Premodern Plagues, for the Newberryʼs YouTube channel. She edited the seven videos in the series, which includes “The Perils of Reopening: The Plague in Marseille, 588 CE” and “Surviving the Black Death.” She also researched and recorded her own video, “Mary Wortley Montagu and Smallpox Inoculation in Early Modern England,” focusing on the woman who introduced the practice of inoculation—a precursor to vaccination—to England from the Ottoman Empire.
By July her video had been watched more than 2,300 times, “which is mind-boggling,” Reitzig says. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a PhD in history with a focus on early modern Europe, and eventually a career in the public humanities: “This project dovetailed extremely well with those plans.”
Reitzig was one of more than 100 College students from across the disciplines who presented work at the virtual 2021 Undergraduate Research Symposium, held in May. The annual symposium, organized by the College Center for Research and Fellowships, is UChicagoʼs only campus-wide interdisciplinary research event.
The symposium is open to students involved in undergraduate research or creative scholarship—meaning research practice undertaken in creative disciplines. (As one example, Mahria Baker, ABʼ21, created a collection of visual poems inspired by the art and writing of 18th-century British caricaturist James Gillray.) Students share their work through abstracts, posters, and prerecorded presentation videos.
During this yearʼs event, which was open to the public, attendees could chat with individual presenters over Zoom. As well as current College students, recent graduates who could not present last year were invited to participate.
Reitzig was not the only student whose project was affected by the pandemic. Tinyan Dada, Class of 2022, a College Global Health Research Scholar, had planned to do research at a clinic in Thomassique, Haiti, during the summer of 2020. She had created a study to identify health care gaps that affected hypertensive and preeclamptic pregnancies. When her study was canceled, Dada shifted her focus to the South Side of Chicago, looking at how a positive COVID-19 diagnosis affected pregnancy outcomes.
A large majority of patients in her study were asymptomatic and diagnosed with COVID-19 by universal screening, Dada discovered. The rates of preterm labor and cesarean delivery were similar or higher than the national average. None of the patients died, but 5 percent had to be admitted to the intensive care unit. She also collected data on the babies, finding that both severe neonatal complications and transmission of the virus to the babies were rare.
“This project made me realize that there are numerous factors that contribute to a diagnosis—socioeconomic status, transportation, patient knowledge, et cetera—and only through dedicated analysis can we turn our current ‘sick care systemʼ into a health care system that works for all,” says Dada, who plans to attend medical school and pursue a masterʼs in public health.
Yena Kim, AB’21, a CRASSH scholar, worked on a research team with Howard Nusbaum, the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology. Initially, the team’s research focused on individual resilience in response to stressful events, such as crime. At the start of the pandemic, “we quickly pivoted,” Kim says, to study how the crisis affected people’s mental health differently.
Kim designed a survey and collected online data from people living in New York City, North Carolina, and South Carolina. “We found interesting patterns,” she says. For example, some past studies have suggested that being civically engaged contributes to an individual’s well-being. But Kim found the opposite: people who were more involved with their communities had higher levels of psychological distress about the pandemic. “Supporting your community may have a positive impact on others,” she says, but it can come at a cost.
The most challenging aspect of her research was learning how to use statistics to see patterns in a large data set. “Especially with everything being remote, I did a lot of self-teaching,” Kim says. “I gained so much confidence from doing undergraduate research.” This autumn, Kim begins a doctoral program in behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Amara Cohen, ABʼ21, a Deanʼs Fund for Undergraduate Research awardee, looked at social and emotional learning (SEL) in Title I schools (which have a large number of students from low-income families) during the past academic year. Her interest was sparked by an internship at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the summer of 2020. “Students were under a lot of stress during the pandemic, which meant that schools needed to prioritize SEL more than ever,” she says. “Yet I wondered if this need was reflected in practice.” Her findings: only schools that had fully integrated SEL into the school structure kept it up during the pandemic.
During her interviews with teachers, Cohen was surprised when several of them thanked her. The teachers appreciated having the chance to discuss their own SEL plans and reflect on what worked—and what had not—in the classroom. Although Cohen was happy to hear that her interviews were helpful, “it made me realize that schools need to be providing more spaces for teachers to talk in depth about their experiences, and someone needs to be carefully listening.”
Next year Cohen will teach third grade at the Hamlin School in San Francisco. She chose that school over others because Hamlin “clearly emphasized their commitment to SEL,” she says. “I look forward to integrating my research with my teaching practices.”
Five other research projects from a range of disciplines focused on aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. All were supported by grants from the College Center for Research and Fellowships.
Bryan Gu, Class of 2022
Family Conflict and Mental Health Outcomes in Chinese American Young Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Rahul Gupta, Class of 2022
Developing Computational Tools to Predict COVID-19 Symptom Severity
Beatrice Katsnelson and Elise Katsnelson, both Class of 2023
Automatic Segmentation and Analysis of COVID-19 Patient CT Scans Using Deep Learning
Elise Katsnelson and Beatrice Katsnelson
Improving COVID-19 Patient Care by Deep Learning–Based CT Scan Assessment
Jacqueline Lewittes, Class of 2022, and Fady Shokry, ABʼ21
Child Care Providers Responding to COVID-19