The daily 1 p.m. Zoom call has become a lifeline for a team of UC Riverside students and their project scientist.
Sometimes the call focuses on data, driven by the greenhouse emissions research they are conducting for Francesca Hopkins, assistant professor of climate change and sustainability.
Other times, they talk about life or squeeze in a few minutes of fun by playing Pictionary. And recently, they organized a surprise birthday party for one of the members. They sang “Happy Birthday” to a classmate in English and Spanish and watched her eat carne asada tacos and blow out the birthday candle alongside her roommates. The others sang and cheered from their screens.
But there have also been plenty of times when they each just work in silence, using the Zoom call as a way to stay connected and enjoy companionship.
Before COVID-19, the students often worked in silence in their Geology Building lab.
“We all have our own research project, but they are really related,” said Alison Marklein, project scientist with Hopkins’ lab. “In the office, we would have side conversations, we would share graphs and talk about them, but it was also a social space because we saw each other every day.”
After UCR announced the campus closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone retreated into their homes. After day three of no communication, third-year doctoral student Isis Fraústo-Vicencio decided they needed to reconnect.
Before COVID-19, she considered herself an introvert, never comfortable about being in front of a camera. Now things have changed.
“I need that human connection, especially now that we are working on the computer all the time,” said Fraústo-Vicencio, who studies greenhouse gas emissions and air toxics from dairy farms. “This is about setting aside an hour a day so that we can keep that sense of community. It’s great that UCR has Zoom Pro so that we have access as students.”
Fraústo-Vicencio also connects with her Ph.D. cohort for game night once a week.
Her lab mate, Alondra Moreno, a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in environmental sciences, said they have been able to keep the data analysis going remotely, but also enjoy talking “face to face” online.
Valerie Carranza, a third-year doctoral candidate who also studies greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farms, said she too considered herself an introvert — until COVID-19 made her realize how much she misses being around people.
“It’s nice to know we have each other’s backs,” Carranza said. “We are lab mates, but we are also friends.” Carranza’s roommate is Marklein, who organized Carranza’s birthday surprise via Zoom a couple weeks ago.
“I thought I wasn’t going to celebrate this birthday, but it was such a nice surprise,” Carranza said.
Professor Hopkins said she was impressed with how the students organized the daily Zoom call for mutual support, even if they are simply working in silence while being virtually connected.
“They mentioned to me that they are doing this, and I was impressed,” Hopkins said. “I have really tried to cultivate a supportive environment in my group, and I’m glad it’s working.”