Adapting to science communication by screen

COVID-19 has changed the centuries-old process of defending dissertations and theses. Graduate School Dean Lori McMahon, Ph.D., and Associate Dean David Schneider, Ph.D., explain which changes are temporary and which could become permanent.
Written by: Matt Windsor
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton

Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

defense 2COVID-19 has changed the centuries-old process of defending dissertations and theses. Graduate School Dean Lori McMahon, Ph.D., and Associate Dean David Schneider, Ph.D., explain which changes are temporary and which could become permanent.The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted cherished events worldwide. For students in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Graduate School, that includes a rite of passage that inspires both anticipation and terror: the thesis or dissertation defense.  

“Graduate schools everywhere require a public defense of a student’s research, and they have done so for about 200 years,” said UAB Graduate School Dean Lori McMahon, Ph.D. “The quality of the research has to be publicly examined by a large group of scientists, in addition to the student’s dissertation committee.” 

When UAB transitioned to a limited business model in mid-March, the defenses went on, virtually. Many students were deeply disappointed, McMahon says. “They envisioned themselves standing in front of a packed venue while they talk about their work.” 

For other students, the chance to defend via webcam from a familiar bedroom or living room, with no live audience, has been beneficial. “Those students who are nervous speakers find it less anxiety-provoking,” McMahon said.

As with any change, virtual thesis and dissertation defenses have benefits and drawbacks, say McMahon and David Schneider, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Biomedical Sciences in the UAB Graduate School. McMahon and Schneider say they intend to allow in-person defenses to resume during the fall semester for those students and mentors who prefer this format, as long as attendees are appropriately socially distanced and wear masks.  

But the bottom line is, good or bad, presentations by video conference are part of a new world for scientists, and there is little chance that everything will completely return to the pre-pandemic state of affairs, McMahon says. Since March, the Graduate School has transitioned two of its premier science communication events, Discoveries in the Making and the Three Minute Thesis competition, to a virtual format, she notes. “This time has taught us how to use Zoom to our advantage — to find out what works and what needs to be refined,” she said.

Here McMahon shares the advantages and challenges she and her team have encountered through videocasting science and ways the technology will shape graduate training in the future.

Virtual science communication: the good 

A global audience for new science

For thesis defenses, attendance is sometimes very low and variable between students, according to Schneider. “That is a good component of going virtual — it erases those boundaries,” he said. “We have a Polish student who gave a talk recently, and her mom and dad in Poland were able to attend by Zoom.”

The Graduate School’s Discoveries in the Making series gives graduate students a chance to present their work to the public. During the pandemic, the series has shifted to Zoom from in-person sessions at Birmingham pub The Lumbar. “We had a Discoveries in the Making presentation last month by a student who had done work in Antarctica,” McMahon said, “and for our session that evening, we had five people in Antarctica who attended. We have also had audience members from Scotland and Germany. We never would have been able to reach those people before. Discoveries in the Making going virtual has really been fantastic. Attendance has been better than it was in person because it is easier to join from wherever you happen to be.”

Space to speak up

When talks happen online, “often the students in the audience are less inhibited to ask questions,” McMahon said. “Students typically are very shy and do not raise their hands in an in-person talk. They often worry that their question is a dumb question and they will be embarrassed. That’s something we work with students on, to help them get over that fear of speaking up. But on Zoom, there seems to be more confidence. And if they don’t want to speak, they can type something in the chat.” 

Virtual science communication: the bad

Lessons from a pandemic

UAB faculty are devising new paths to advance education and professional development for students in spite of remote learning — and because of it.

Comfort level: too high?

“The problem with Zoom is that it is not as formal” as a presentation in person, McMahon said. Students “can be too comfortable, and that leads them to conduct themselves in a less professional way.” For her own students, McMahon has shared expectations on behaviors to avoid — slouching or swiveling in a chair, for example, or looking off into the distance while they talk, instead of maintaining eye contact with their audience. RELATED STORY: Looking your best, personally and professionally, on Zoom.

Schneider says students have noticed that surroundings matter. “One of my students came into one of our conference rooms for her qualifying exam and stood at the lectern, speaking to an empty room, because she knew those cues would lend themselves to a more professional presentation,” he said.

Face-to-face comeback

“I do envision maybe even this semester having in-person dissertation defenses again,” McMahon said. “We are teaching courses in person, and we have some of our large lecture rooms set up to allow for everyone to spread out. Those students who want that experience will be able to have it.”

Schneider says defenses also will return in person. “My vision is we will still offer Zoom options going forward so that people can join remotely, but there will be a live audience as well,” he said. 

New training for a new era

Conferences, seminars and all the other in-person mechanisms of communicating new science have transitioned to virtual settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. In at least some cases, organizers have indicated this may be a permanent shift. That means graduate schools need to update their curricula, McMahon says.

“In the same way we train students what to do with their hands and to avoid waving their laser pointer while they talk and those other kinds of habits that people have, we are now working with students on their video-presentation techniques,” McMahon said.

This involves more than avoiding bad habits. Presenting online “is very different from giving a seminar to a room of 50 people, where you see their faces and can get immediate feedback,” McMahon said. “I always share with students when training them to give a professional presentation, ‘Engage your audience. Make sure there is eye contact. You can tell if they are understanding what you are sharing with them if they are nodding their heads.’ You do not always have those cues on Zoom. You may not be able to see all the faces without clicking through several screens.” 

Succeeding on a screen “is a different skill set,” McMahon said, “but that is something we can train our students to be prepared for. Maybe you will have to pause in a different way. The audience may be reluctant to ask a question in the middle of your presentation. They will not interrupt the way they do in person.”

Ultimately, “the future is going to be different,” McMahon said. “Zoom and other video-conference technologies are here to stay. Our students are developing that extra skill set they will need to thrive in this new era of science.”