A summary of 2020 REU programming and a look ahead to 2021

Joe Ayoob, University of Pittsburgh


Much like today, prior to Summer 2020, there was a lot of uncertainty around whether or not REU programs would be able to run as usual.  While many were forced to cancel, there was a small group of programs that offered virtual or hybrid programming to offer research and training opportunities to our students (see highlights below).  According to the REU Program Officer at NSF, Sally O’Connor, a fraction of the total REU programs hosted around 20% of the total number of students that participated in 2019 (254 vs. ~1250).  While there was limited time to prepare for a switch from an in-person program to a virtual or hybrid program, there was unanimous consensus from all student participants that they were grateful that they had an opportunity to participate in research and valued their experiences as an important part of their preparation as a scientist.  As we look ahead to the uncertainty of the summer programs in 2021, we know that it would be disastrous to lose yet another summer of REU programming, which is so vital to reaching out to underrepresented students and providing mentoring and training opportunities for all students to help them prepare for rigors of graduate school and beyond.  It may not be business as usual, but we owe it to our students to get together to brainstorm, investigate, get creative, and collaborate on how we can offer them a quality training experience safely.  To support everyone in this endeavor, the BIO REU Leadership Council will be organizing a series of meetings to bring together the REU community and build upon the what we were able to achieve in 2020.  We will share data and best practices from summer 2020, think about ways to synergize efforts across sites, invent new approaches to student training resources, and think hard together about how we might overcome the challenges that we are all presented.  We have set the goal of reaching 1000 students this summer and ask you to join us in this pursuit.


A Summary of REU Programs from Summer 2020


  1. We started our 2020 REU efforts in early spring by polling programs (REUs and others) on their confidence in running a program. Initially there was a group of about 5 programs that had high confidence in running a virtual/hybrid program.  We organized a series of biweekly meetings and established communication lines over email and Slack, which together led us to a group of over 25 programs that hosted students in some form – many with tweaks in size, timing, programming, and support offered.  Sally O’Connor was very supportive and helpful through the whole process and easily enabled the changes of scope and other adjustments needed, e.g., multiple students were allowed to work collaboratively on one project, which had several benefits including allowing sites take on additional students, providing near-peers for students to collaborate and interact with regularly, and reducing burden on mentors.
  2. Our group met every two weeks to talk about issues facing programs and how to synergize (common programming, etc.).  Recordings of each Zoom meeting, and other materials, were made available via Box to those who couldn’t attend synchronously. We also used a Google sheet to share information, agendas, resources, etc.  It also hosted a common calendar.  We had toyed with hosting discipline-specific meetings in the off weeks since most programs were either computational or field-based to try to address issues specific to these areas.  Alan Berkowitz led the field group, which met several times.  I started the computational group, but we found that it wasn’t needed as much so only met once or twice.  In thinking about possibly engaging more/all programs as we move forward with this, this might be one model as a way to reach and engage a large number of programs.
  3. We used Slack as a way to communicate.  I was/am Slack-averse, but found it to be a very helpful tool to communicate amongst the program leaders and to get students in touch with each other across programs.  We had several channels (some private and some public) that facilitated a lot of what we did.  This could also be a good way to keep in touch with your cohorts after they have completed the program.  Students across sites used this platform to also communicate with each other. We have established a new Slack workspace for all REU programs, which will replace the old email listserv.
  4. We were fortunate to be able to collaborate with Erin Dolan, through funding made available by Sally, to perform a common assessment of the programs that ran this summer – at least those that wanted to participate.  Erin is planning on presenting these data (program descriptions, pre-/post-tests, and focus groups) to the large group in Jan/Feb as they are being prepared for publication.
  5. We held a common grad school showcase and other programs shared some of their programming with everyone (programming bootcamps, ethics training, etc.).  We were planning on doing more things across programs, but found it difficult given the timing of everything.  With more time to prepare, we can easily organize more of these efforts.
  6. Some anecdotes from this summer from my and others’ experiences…
    1. In general, the students were very thankful that we ran programs this summer.
    2. We recognized that this was going to be a difficult summer for the students and made some changes to the way that we did things and what we expected.  For example, we did journal clubs as groups instead of individual presentations, which helped with the workload and also got them to interact with each other a lot more.
    3. We had a lot of ways to engage the cohort, and as a group, we talked a lot about cohort engagement, which was one of the biggest concerns heading into the summer.  For us we had them working in small groups a lot for many activities, such as a series of Entering Research sessions, students work on committees/teams (ambassador, social, t-shirt, and mentoring), and tailored TGIF events (I can talk more about these later).
    4. Though mentors had more pressures on them and were trying to manage their own shifts to working virtually, they were very engaged and intentional with their students.
    5. Lastly, at our site, we incorporated virtual reality into our program this summer.  We got headsets for all students, but since they came late because of a large backorder, we were more limited in how we used them.  We did have a seminar that used it to demonstrate a protein structure viewing tool called ProteinVR developed by one of our mentors.  The highlight was the poster session that we held in VR on the last day.  This was a huge hit for everyone.  We were able to move around and interact with each other in a virtual poster session space where we were able to display our students’ posters.  We all felt like this was the first time that we were all in the same room together.  Virtual or not next year, we’re planning on using this technology moving forward (I’m happy to talk about this more and show pictures from the poster session when we meet).