The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on international travel due to safety concerns, closed borders and travel restrictions. For many, plans to travel internationally had to be put on hold. Those who were already abroad had to abruptly pack up and come home. This has put a particular strain on graduate students and scholars studying international issues that require travel abroad.
Jaime Leah Jones, John Murray and Monica Ramirez all had plans to travel abroad to conduct research in their various fields of graduate studies. The pandemic changed these plans, but it did not stop them from innovating and adapting in order to push their research projects forward.
In October, the Graduate College asked graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to share the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic and the innovative ways they overcame those challenges. Now, we are highlighting several of these innovative solutions to create a resource that students, fellows and faculty can turn to for inspiration as COVID-19 continues to impact research.
Understanding the 2018 Cape Town water crisis through content analysis
Jaime Leah Jones is a PhD student in ASU’s School of Sustainability.
As part of her dissertation, Jones is studying the interconnections and trade-offs between food, energy, and water resources and their related government sectors.
“Because of the interlinkages between the resources, governance decisions made in one sector can affect the other two. Many decision-makers continue to make decisions in silos, without coordination across governance sectors, which can lead to unintended consequences and decreased resource security,” Jones wrote in her application.
Jones had plans to travel to South Africa during the summer of 2020 to conduct research and fieldwork on the 2018 water crisis in Cape Town. She had hoped to conduct a case study analysis by interviewing decision-makers and community members about the impact of the crisis.
“After spending several years developing contacts in Cape Town and several months applying to research grants, a professor had agreed to host me at the University of Cape Town, and I had secured sufficient research funding to travel and conduct my fieldwork,” Jones wrote. “Then the pandemic hit, and my research plans were put on hold.”
When her travel plans were canceled, Jones thought she would simply postpone her fieldwork to the fall. When it became clear that this was not a viable option, she considered conducting her fieldwork and interviews via Zoom. She decided against this option as well since South African culture values face-to-face interaction and the country was facing major challenges combating the virus, which was occupying the attention of the key decision-makers she hoped to interview.
Instead, Jones decided to conduct a content analysis, a research approach that draws out meaning from specific texts, of news articles surrounding the water crisis. Luckily, Jones had a lot of content to work with since the Cape Town water crisis was an international news headline throughout 2018.
“Thus, I changed my research objective to understand how the media portrayed the water crisis itself, the role of governance collaboration (or lack thereof), and the impact on the related food and energy sectors,” she wrote. “In this way, I was able to continue moving forward with my dissertation research by taking the data and resources that were available to me without travel.”
For her creativity and ability to adapt her research methods, Jones was one ten students awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant.
Conducting anthropological fieldwork in his backyard
John Murray is researching “how early humans living in South Africa used fire to transform the mechanical properties of a stone called silcrete” as part of his graduate education in anthropology.
This research project is “the first formal experimental study of heat treatment technology that focuses on better understanding how stone was heat treated using prehistoric methods,” according to Murray.
“The results of this research have implications for the evolution of human cognition, behavioral variation, and technological complexity,” he wrote.
Many aspects of his research have required Murray to travel to South Africa during the summer months. There he is able to excavate and analyze stone tools and collect the field data and materials required for his research.
The COVID-19 pandemic made travel this summer impossible for Murray and many of the materials that he needed to collect data were stuck in a lab in South Africa. Even the ASU labs closed due to safety concerns.
“This has significantly impacted my ability to continue to gather dissertation data for the foreseeable future and has hindered my progress towards completing my dissertation,” Murray wrote.
In response to these challenges, Murray decided to bring the “lab” home with him.
He brought home an electric kiln, a portable reflectance spectrophotometer and around 40-50 large pieces of silcrete, much to his wife’s dismay.
Murray conducted heat treatments on these materials by making small fires in his own backyard. Eventually, he was able to analyze almost 300 samples of silcrete and finish collecting the data he needed for his dissertation manuscript.
Murray was also awarded a $100 spotlight grant due to his impressive innovation in regards to his research.
Digitally educating third world communities on oral hygiene and care
Monica Ramirez is working towards a graduate degree in Advanced Nursing Practice with a focus on Adult-Gerontology, the study of aging. Specifically, her research involves educating adults on the Island of Vanuatu in oral hygiene and care.
“This is a rural and underserved community which faces considerable amounts of health disparities due to lack of resources, funds, and education,” she wrote.
To conduct research and implement an educational plan for oral care, Ramirez planned on traveling to the island multiple times.
COVID-19 banned all travel to Vanuatu and many of the people she was working with on the island, like members of the Peace Corps and SolarSPELL, were forced to evacuate.
“SolarSPELL is an initiative that empowers learners globally by providing localized educational information and training to build 21st-century skills in offline environments by providing solar-powered tablets to communities,” she wrote.
Though the pandemic has delayed her research. Ramirez has been able to coordinate with other members of SolarSPELL via Zoom and is now tailoring her project to be more generalized and reach a larger audience.
She was able to create an educational video about oral hygiene that “can speak to generalized audiences and is accessible to all community members who have access to the electronic libraries set up by SolarSPELL.”