When it became clear to Kyra Yap that the global pandemic was going to be felt in New Jersey, she knew she had to act quickly.
In less than 12 hours, the School of Engineering graduating senior packed up her on-campus belongings, stowed her car in a storage locker and was on a plane back to Australia to spend the lockdown at home with her family.
"I was worried they were going to shut down borders. I was worried I wasn't going to be able to get back," she said.
Yap – who had completed a three-year research project on converting carbon dioxide into renewable plastics – planned to present her research at a poster session, one of her department’s annual traditions recognizing the work of graduating seniors.
"Presenting posters at the end of the year gives you a sense of purpose. It gives you some recognition and a sense of satisfaction," she said.
But with the university’s sudden shift to remote instruction, it looked like that would not happen.
With the end of the semester approaching, Dee Magnoni, assistant vice president for information services and director of the Rutgers-New Brunswick Libraries, and Sunita Kramer, the assistant vice provost for undergraduate research and experiential education, knew something needed to be done – and fast.
So they gathered a team to brainstorm and, in a matter of days, developed an online platform where students could present their work digitally from the safety of their homes.
"What started as an idea to celebrate our seniors and their remarkable range of work grew into a community experience," said Dee Magnoni. "There was real enthusiasm and a real coming together. It was truly a heartwarming response."
The research projects of students from the School of Arts and Sciences, Aresty Research Center, Honors College, and other programs were then recorded and video presentations about their research were uploaded. They also scheduled several live, virtual exhibits during which the students hosted videoconference sessions for real-time Q&A with visitors.
“It was an opportunity to show off your work. I could invite people from my lab, and my friends could stop by,” said Yap. “It’s a nice way to end it all and put a cap on it.”
Despite being half a world away, Yap found that these events helped foster a real sense of connection.
It was a welcome respite for Iram Mansoor, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, whose research looks at applying electrochemistry to develop renewable sources of energy. Mansoor’s mother had recently been discharged from the hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and was recovering at home. Although caring for her mother in addition to her three siblings placed increased demands on Mansoor’s time, she decided that it was still important to participate in her department’s exhibit.
"I thought, 'This is my senior year, and it would be nice to have a video presentation,'" she said. "I was able to show my page to my mom and my dad, and they were very proud."
Mansoor said she was grateful for the team from the Libraries for their work creating the platform, organizing submissions, and training students on how to present online.
"You could tell how much effort they put into this," Mansoor said. "I really appreciated it."
Kramer said offering students these types of opportunities is about more than just fulfilling Rutgers' duty as a research institution. It's about creating an experience that is both enriching and memorable.
"Being able to invite the families in to see their kids shine, to see the work they created – it has a lot of lasting impact," she said.
To Magnoni, the project served as an illustration of Rutgers' resilience in this challenging time.