How COVID-19 Has Affected the SMEA Experience

The Currents board asked students in SMEA how their research has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and, particularly for first-year students, what their experience has been like starting graduate school in the middle of a pandemic.

 Academic difficulties graduate students have struggled with due to COVID-19—like changing a research topic, curtailing lab or field work, canceling relationship-building opportunities, or reassessing post-graduation plans—all pale in comparison to the personal, often untold toll this pandemic has taken on so many, including those of us in the SMEA community. However, we wanted to provide readers with an honest look at what graduate students are going through during this time, in the hopes that by sharing our experiences we can build a sense of solidarity with those going through similar situations.

Thinking in terms of “silver linings” would be abhorrent in a pandemic that has taken countless lives and exacerbated inequities baked into the settler-colonial framework of American society. What I will say is that one thing which has really helped get me through the tougher times is how much more open both students and professors have been about their own feelings of inadequacy and sadness, about the need to forgive oneself and others, for the need to be forgiving about the occasional missed deadline or skipped class, and for a radical restructuring of academia that prioritizes care and connection over profit and production. There is a culture of care emerging in different academic spaces since the pandemic took hold, and I hope that lasts, because we can’t afford to return to our so-called normal.


Ten months into the quarantine, Katie Shelledy finally went to class in her pajamas. (Photo credit: Katie Shelledy)

Katie Shelledy (she/her/hers), second-year student

I am writing my thesis on how COVID-19 impacts disaster management for tropical cyclones. Originally, my thesis focused on tropical cyclones in Pacific Islands and necessary steps to prepare for the fact that tropical cyclones are projected to worsen in the region (i.e., become more frequent and intense in El Niño years) due to climate change.

I had applied for and been accepted to an interdisciplinary research trip to Tonga that was scheduled for summer last year with professors from the Department of Anthropology and the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. The trip was cancelled once Pacific Islands closed their borders to protect against COVID-19, so I reworked my thesis to study how COVID-19 is impacting Pacific Islands disaster management and switched to collecting news articles rather than conducting interviews.

While I am proud of the thesis that I’m writing, it was really disappointing to have that trip cancelled and not get to take advantage of the relationship and career-building opportunities it offered. With the pandemic, this master’s program has looked so different from what I had imagined. It can be difficult to process sometimes because while the effects feel so personal, I am aware that COVID-19 has affected everyone.

Bellingham Bay, WA (January 9, 2021) – Winter tidepooling as a means to remain connected to our other-than-human communities. (Photo credit: Izzi Lavallee)

Nikki Canning (she/her/hers), first-year student

I arrived at SMEA much more interested in contributing to the analysis of already existing data than collecting my own, so COVID-19 hasn’t had a detrimental effect on my thesis work. I realize, however, that this is probably not the case for many of my classmates.

Also, I’ve been much more aware of networking opportunities falling behind what I had expected. First-year students are limited in terms of avenues to interact with each other and really have to go out of our way to find ways to build outside connections. During my admission and orientation process, I spoke to several SMEA grads who emphasized SMEA’s network as a very important resource for job hunting after graduation. I would like to see the school ramp up networking events next quarter and really make up for lost time next year so that we graduate not just with the same quality of education but also the same level of professional connections as other cohorts.

James Lee (he/him/his), second-year student

I sat in a van with Griff and other students over a year ago to visit the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for a day of listening, learning, and bonding, only to be sitting dazed six weeks later as we ended our last class session over Zoom. I doubt those of us who were first-year students at the time realized until much later that we would end up having less than two quarters worth of in-person classes before graduation. I hate the fact that the Currents team will never meet in person this academic year.

Last year, I was unable to finish a job I’d been given because the first lockdown began while I was troubleshooting a finicky DNA extraction protocol, and I couldn’t return to the lab before my contract ended. Around the same time I had the dubious distinction of becoming Washington Sea Grant’s first fully remote science communications fellow, and it took me a full month after the fellowship’s original end date to complete all the work I wanted to accomplish. Even though I knew there were many things happening beyond my control, an irrational part of me kept wondering if any of these “failures” were my fault.

I really hope my cohort and the next make sustained and repeated efforts to meet up once this pandemic is over so we can see each other face to face, in many cases for the first time.

Lindsey Popken (she/her/hers), second-year student

My work is a project co-developed with the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council on Indigenizing sea otter management in Nuu-chah-nulth territories on the west coast of Vancouver Island. As an anthropologist, the original research plan was for me to conduct ethnography (i.e., interviews, thick descriptions) over the summer on Vancouver Island for a fellowship I received to learn Nuu-chah-nulth.

Unfortunately, with COVID-19, our plan for ethnography was halted. I have fortunately been able to conduct a few interviews via Zoom, but only one with a Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Leader. While I am disappointed that I was unable to carry out my original research plan, I am grateful for how flexible people have been to help me gather some data for my master’s thesis.

How Izzi feels about online school. (Photo credit: Izzi Lavallee)

Izzi Lavallee (she/they), first-year student

My favorite part about higher education is the learning community. Unfortunately, the learning community at SMEA during a pandemic has been fleeting at best and taxing at worst due to online classes and virtual work while isolated. According to Dr. Jena Lee in Psychiatric Times: “Social interactions are very much associated with our reward circuits, as oxytocin—the hormone involved in social bonding—modulates these same dopaminergic pathways involved in reward processing. Moreover, how that social interaction happens seems to matter… functional MRI data reveal that live face-to-face interactions, compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward.”

Beyond Zoom fatigue, there are other effects that the pandemic has had on student’s lives, from vast and intimate grief, to increasing rates of homelessness and economic precarity.

I am so grateful to be in SMEA as a vehicle to build up my credentials and help me bring out positive change in the world. However, I personally desire much more camaraderie and social support to get through the trials of this online graduate program.

Marissa Paulling (she/her/hers), second-year student

Ultimately, my research has not been hugely impacted by COVID-19 since the project was designed around data that was previously gathered. I do think I’ve missed out on learning skills, specifically in a program we use called R. My capstone group has mostly divided up our work and Zoom has some benefits in terms of making meetings easier, but some of the work process suffers because we don’t get to work through a lot of the analytical process in person or have the face-to-face interactions.

The work we are doing examines the re-opening of the Rockfish Conservation Area off the West Coast, an area that was off-limits to bottom contact gear for nearly twenty years. We are examining fishing behavior now that the area has been reopened. The research itself has been fine, but I just feel like I am missing out on doing in-person work, especially since if we were able to work in person, we could be troubleshooting together more easily, discussing problems sooner, and working with better productivity.

Seattle, WA (December 31, 2020) – George measuring temperature and dissolved oxygen levels using a handheld sensor in Puget Creek, near hǝʔapus (“ha-ah-poos”) Village Park. (Photo credit: James Lee)

George Thomas, Jr. (he/him/his), second-year student

Last year my colleagues and I were to conduct extensive field research for our floating wetlands capstone project in the lower Duwamish River, a heavily industrialized section of the river that is an important part of the lifecycle of juvenile Chinook salmon. COVID-19 limited our time in the field, as well as our interaction with community scientists. Consequently, we could not gather sufficient quantitative data to draw statistically robust conclusions about the effectiveness of our floating wetland prototypes.

Another negative impact is not seeing my colleagues on campus. There’s no substitute for the camaraderie we enjoyed prior to campus closing—not just within SMEA, but also with our colleagues in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Oceanography, and other units. Research is at its best when it’s interdisciplinary, but now we’re forced to make and maintain connections virtually, which is tough.

Kayla Stevenson (she/her/hers), first-year student

I started graduate school right after completing my undergraduate degree, so I was used to school being online. I think that really made the transition to grad school easier, because I have not yet been exposed to all of the resources on UW’s physical campus.

Something that has been difficult during my first couple of quarters has been making connections with faculty in a meaningful way. However, even though school has been entirely online, I feel lucky because I’ve been able to make connections with people in my cohort.

Attending class online and working from home has its benefits. Leah’s cat, Mischa, has a habit of always making an appearance on screen during Zoom lectures and Currents meetings. (Photo credit: Leah Huff)

Leah Huff (she/her/hers), first-year student

Even before arriving at SMEA, my academic experience was radically changed by COVID-19 when classes went virtual and I ended up attending my undergraduate commencement ceremony online. I first “met” the 2022 SMEA cohort online last April and was surprised by the feeling of inclusion in a community of like-minded individuals. It’s one of the main reasons why I ultimately chose SMEA for my graduate studies.

My research will be focused on disaster management and climate justice in the Pacific Islands. In the back of my mind, I knew that COVID-19 had a significant probability of affecting my thesis, because while Zoom has its strengths and weaknesses, being confined to our homes and computers makes it difficult for primary research to be conducted. In particular, conducting interviews over Zoom is extremely difficult, as it can come across as impersonal to these communities. As a result, my methodology has shifted towards analyzing documents and reports.

Right now, it’s hard to see what the future holds, especially when everything is so unpredictable. Once the pandemic is over, it will be exciting to meet my classmates in person and to continue working towards our goals, together.