Article: Students complete grad degrees via Zoom

Jul 9, 2020 | Business, Innovation

Note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of 1894: The Alumni Magazine. 
Written by Teddy Allen

Haley Barnett didn’t intend to become a pandemic pioneer, but that’s what happened when Louisiana Tech switched to online learning March 16 — the day before her PhD defense for her doctorate in Molecular Science and Nanotechnology (MSNT).

She passed and earned it — but unlike anyone else at Tech before.

Set up by her major advisor Dr. Mary Caldorera-Moore, Barnett’s was a “partially Zoom defense” to keep the number of attendees down. Only her committee and family were present in the conference room of the biomedical engineering building. Barnett’s friends and lab mates were able to “join” the defense through a zoom meeting.

“It was nice to find a way to include them, even with the social distancing practices that were in place,” Barnett said. “It was disappointing that my lab mates couldn’t physically be present to see my defense; after all, they are the ones working alongside me every day, and they have been a huge source of support and inspiration throughout this journey.

“I have always pictured what the day of my defense would be like,” she said, “and due to the circumstances, it was far from what I had imagined.”

“PhD defense is a big day for students, and the celebration with friends and family in the audience is so important,” said Dr. Jamie Newman, one of Barnett’s advisors. “Not being able to celebrate after as you normally would, eating out with friends and family, was sad for all of us. At least with Zoom her friends could still share the day, and through social media, she received much of the recognition she deserved for all of her hard work.”

“The biggest thing for me has been that Haley has been such an amazing, hard-working student who has planned and worked extremely hard to get to her defense day, just to have it overshadowed by all that’s going on right now with COVID-19,” said Caldorera-Moore. “I’m sure it was bittersweet for her in several ways.”

On the bright side, Caldorera-Moore said, “She has now earned her PhD in MSNT.”

As it turned out, Barnett actually ended up being a bit lucky, most things considered. As the reality of the pandemic quickly grew, caution was taken to make all defenses completely virtual.

Randi Jiang, a fourth year Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) student, presented her dissertation to a virtual room of 19 fellow doctoral students and faculty members. And to defend his thesis for his MA in History, Matthew Flanders was “Zooming” in Shreveport while two members of his thesis committee were in Ruston and one was in Houston. 

“I personally felt detached from the audience,” Jiang said. “Even with the Zoom camera, I was unsure who was there, and if I was even speaking to anyone besides myself. However, technology allowed me to connect with about 19 individuals – whether I was fully aware of that or not. It was very nice to be able present to that many people while sitting in my apartment.”

To prepare to present virtually, Jiang spent hours talking to her computer screen, even trying to tell jokes to herself and talk to a computer without seeing the audience’s facial expressions. 

While she would have preferred the face-to-face contact of presenting on campus, she did find positives in the experience.

“It was very cool to have (Assistant Professor of Economics) Dr. Rob Blackstock give me words of encouragement,” she said. “Going fully online has given me a new appreciation for an in-person format of communication. I do recognize the efficiency of going online though, and it is interesting to see if this is how organizations will start communicating to conduct normal business.”

Flanders had to deal with the double whammy of defending his thesis and switching — as a teacher of both history and world geography at C.E. Byrd in Shreveport — to online teaching, something that proved “difficult,” he said, “and, at times, practically impossible for some of my students.”

But in the middle of all that, he still earned his master’s and passed his defense with distinction.

“Mr. Flanders did a bang-up job,” said Dr. Bryan Zygmont, one of three to take part in Flanders’ defense.

The chair of the committee was Associate Professor of History Dr. V. Elaine Thompson.

“The funniest thing about the whole experience was this,” Thompson said. “While waiting for the others to join us, I taught Dr. Zygmont how to change his background image. He changed it three times in the first 10 minutes of the defense, finally settling on a famous portrait of Thomas More, the subject of Matthew’s thesis. It was a very funny, very human experience.”

“I would have preferred to defend my thesis in person,” Flanders said, “but I’m glad that I passed, and it would be only pride to want more.”

Despite the uncharted technological waters in what was a first-time experience to begin with, Barnett felt the same way. 

“I am so thankful that Zoom is a technology available today,” she said. “I would have loved to present to my family and friends in person, but with the pandemic, I don’t know when that would even be possible. Zoom allowed me to finish my degree and graduate spring quarter, and for me that is priceless.”