Some Capstones Have New Relevance in COVID-19 Response

Katherine Mayer, front right, UMass Lowell EMT, outside the Tsongas Center Image by Jon DeLeon
Public health major Katherine Mayer is creating an emergency dispensing site operation plan for the university as her Honors College capstone project.

By Katharine Webster

Senior public health major Katherine Mayer, an EMT, wanted to help UMass Lowell’s Emergency Management team with “something they didn’t have yet” for her Honors College capstone.

So last fall, she consulted with Kevin Conley, the university’s emergency preparedness and EMS coordinator, and decided to draw up a detailed plan for dispensing critical supplies such as food, clean drinking water or medical aid to members of the university community in an emergency.

Now, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, she could see her plan implemented within weeks or months.

“It’s important to be able to distribute and dispense things quickly for a critical response in any kind of emergency, but now I’m thinking about it in terms of a vaccine for COVID-19,” Mayer says. “This was going to be my capstone anyway, and it just happened to be something that became really relevant.”

Mayer is one of hundreds of seniors who have had to pivot quickly on their senior capstone or honors capstone projects because the university has closed all academic buildings on campus, including science, engineering and computer labs, art rooms, performance venues and makerspaces.

Some seniors who are unable to finish their research can write about what they’ve already accomplished. Some have switched to reviewing the academic literature and analyzing others’ data because their own is incomplete. Art and music students have adapted performances and exhibits for an online environment.

For a few students like Mayer, the shutdown means their work matters far more than it would have in normal circumstances.

Serving the University Community

Mayer’s emergency dispensing site operation plan dovetails with the city’s plan to distribute emergency supplies to Lowell residents at a central location. The idea is to make sure that UML students and others who have to remain on campus during an emergency can access the same supplies in the same location, even though they’re not listed as Lowell residents.

Honors biology major Katie Moreland by a defibrillator in University Suites Image by Rae Mansfield
Biology major Katie Moreland is doing her Honors College capstone on students' readiness to deal with health emergencies.

Mayer can finish most of her plan online, but meetings with Lowell public health officials have been postponed, she says.

Katie Moreland, a biology major who works as a medical scribe and is just an exam away from becoming an EMT, is working with the university’s EMS and Residential Life on emergency preparedness and first aid as her honors capstone – another timely project.

Moreland is a residential advisor in University Suites, which normally contains the Honors College living-learning communities and now is housing many of the students who need to continue living on campus. Last fall, Moreland began thinking about how to better train EMTs, resident advisors and students in general to respond in health emergencies.

Her honors capstone research is a survey of UML students that asks if they know where to find defibrillators and first aid kits on campus and whether they know how to use them, or if they know what to do in general when someone is having a physical or mental health crisis.

The Honors College sent the survey to all honors students, but responses dropped precipitously after the university announced that classes would move online for the rest of the semester. Moreland had also planned to put up posters with QR codes in campus buildings so that other students could scan them to complete the survey – but now those buildings are closed.

“I’ve got about 200 responses – enough to analyze, but it’s not as broadly representative of the campus demographic as I’d hoped for,” she says.

As a student of biology, though, she’s fascinated with how the pandemic is unfolding.

“It’s amazing to think, ‘Wow – in five years, they’re going to be adding this to textbooks.’”

Honors Capstones

The Honors College, which requires every senior to hold a public presentation about their honors capstone project or thesis, faces a unique challenge as up to 160 seniors prepare to take that final step.

Honors Visiting Prof. Rae Mansfield is now rescheduling all of the presentations on Zoom, with logistical help from the Office of University Advancement. Alumni Relations also plans to email Honors College alumni and invite them to “attend” the presentations as audience members when they can.

“We’re being very, very flexible in how each student completes their honors thesis or capstone project,” Mansfield says. “At the same time, we’re trying to make sure that each capstone still focuses on transferable skills that students can use after graduation.”

Michelle Nguyen, an honors biomedical engineering major, has been working all year with three other students – Madison Merrill, Hannah Bagley and Alexandra Myers – on a social entrepreneurship project: reducing the nationwide backlog of rape kit processing by developing an inexpensive and rapid test for the presence of saliva evidence, using a paper strip that changes colors.

They are all disappointed that they will graduate before making a prototype, although Nguyen hopes to pursue it in graduate school.

“It’s a project we’re super-passionate about,” Nguyen says. “Now we have to shift gears and think of creative strategies to support our design and show that it would work.”

Honors chemistry major Lily Green was working on experiments in department chairman Prof. David Ryan’s lab, making cobalt with nanofeatures that is a highly efficient catalyst for certain reactions. She performed artificial photosynthesis experiments last fall. This semester, she began work on a thermal reaction but was unable to complete it. She will write her thesis using only the data from the fall.

She says Ryan and the Honors College have been understanding, but she worries that the inability to complete her project will make it harder for her to find a job in environmental chemistry after graduation. Fortunately, she is still able to work at UML’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute because she’s doing online research into solvents.

“I’m lucky to be able to work there if this continues into the summer,” she says.

Irena Manukian, an honors chemical engineering major and art minor, was scheduled to exhibit her photo series, “Vantage,” at the Chelmsford Public Library during the month of April and to do her honors capstone presentation at the formal reception there.

Her photos of windows in cities from Lowell to Lincoln, Neb., explore the symbolism of perspective as well as the relationships people have with each other and their environment. The act of taking photos also serves as a way for her to reclaim urban spaces “that have not been given freely to women.”

Now, she’s figuring out whether to display the photos either as a slideshow during her Zoom presentation or in a hard-copy book. The library show would have been her first solo exhibit.

“It’s been this emotional exploration as I figure out how to present the work to others, because that rearranges my relationship to it,” she says. “Who knows when this coronavirus thing will be over? But hopefully at some point, I’ll be able to show my work.”