Researchers share fruits of Faculty-funded COVID-19 projects

Back in the spring of 2020, as researchers and graduate students had to shutter labs, cancel in-person data collection and reimagine and realign their activities to comply with new public health requirements, the Dean’s Office in the Faculty of Social Sciences put out a funding call for special projects related to the COVID-19 context, supported by the Dean’s Discretionary Fund.

Dean Ingrid Makus describes the special call as an “an open invitation to faculty members for project proposals — new and reconfigured initiatives in research, pedagogy, student recruitment and retention, online course development and co-op and practicum options.”

Last Thursday, Feb. 4, some of the funding recipients from across the Faculty logged on to a virtual symposium to share the details of the projects and highlight the impact of the Special COVID-19-Related Dean’s Discretionary Fund.

“It was inspiring to see the creativity at work in the Faculty — particularly in ways that provided supports for students,” says Makus. “We ended up funding almost 30 projects, a few of which were presented at this initial symposium.”

The event featured both faculty members and graduate students presenting on a wide array of topics.

Laura Mullins, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, was one of the presenting researchers who had to abruptly switch gears when other projects were disrupted by the pandemic. Her focus shifted to helping organizations maintain a positive culture.

“Our research is within the developmental disability sector, which is fraught with so many challenges — the pandemic exacerbated conditions for this already vulnerable population,” says Mullins. “Through ongoing discussions, we realized that we could help agencies and people with disabilities be resilient by pivoting our research projects through online delivery during the pandemic. How could we say no?”

Ryan Plummer, Professor and Director of the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, presented with Research Assistant Erica Harper on the ways in which work with community partners could be continued virtually in meaningful ways.

“Adapting to the sudden new challenges of the pandemic posed substantial difficulties,” says Plummer. “This project allowed us to focus additional resources towards refining our communications and online engagement strategy, tailoring our efforts to the needs of our community partners.”

Tim Dun, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film, presented with Associate Professor Jackie Botterill about Badgers Building Bridges, an initiative undertaken to help incoming students connect in meaningful ways in the COVID-19 context.

“As they spend time together in their degree programs, each cohort of students typically becomes a cohesive group with its own personality, so we were particularly interested in helping this year’s students get to know each other and develop that sense of belonging,” says Dun. “Through two student-run initiatives, we engaged students through a social media campaign and ran a mentorship program for first-year students who were matched with successful peers in their particular degree program.”

Both Dun and Mullins say that hearing about the research conducted by their peers during the symposium was fascinating.

“I was amazed at the breadth of interesting work that FOSS is doing — from self-guided tourism to research into how parents communicate with children about COVID to guidance to help localities cope with the challenges of combatting climate change during the pandemic,” says Dun.

Mullins agrees, calling it “amazing to hear how the Brock community has contributed to improving lives through so many unique initiatives.”

Dawn Zinga, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, called the symposium “a great testament” to the ways in which faculty members and graduate students have not only risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic, but also produced “wonderful and insightful research and projects.”

“I am always impressed by the innovation and the diversity in the work within our faculty,” says Zinga. “Each of our presenters demonstrated the creativity and diversity that characterizes our Faculty’s research.”

For Plummer, along with the pandemic’s challenges, there have been opportunities for growth.

“Navigating abrupt change is really difficult, but complex system dynamics teaches us that opportunities and learning come from paying attention to times of rapid change,” he says. “For example, we re-configured the entire environmental stewardship speaker series in record time to an online format. While there were some challenges — intermittent internet, my dog barking at coyotes — they were overshadowed by the realizing an expanded international audience. Openness to change, trying new approaches and undertaking activities as experiments to engender learning are key takeaways.”

Last week’s symposium included presentations by:

  • Jessica Blythe (Environmental Sustainability Research Centre) — Supporting municipal climate adaptation planning in Niagara during COVID-19: Research Assistant, ESRC
  • Courtney Bishop (Child and Youth Studies) — Voices Lost in Crisis: Photovoice for adults with ID during COVID-19 (for Maureen Connolly, Laura Mullins)
  • Dave Brown (Geography and Tourism Studies) — Collaborative research proposal with Niagara Falls Museum and Library: Geolocation and Interpretation of Digital Historical and Heritage Assets in Niagara
  • Tim Dun and Jackie Botterill (Communication, Popular Culture and Film) — Badgers Building Bridges
  • Angela Evans (Psychology) — Research Study: Parent Child Covid-19 Conversations
  • Laura Mullins (Applied Disability Studies) — Fostering Positive Organizational Culture Among Developmental Support Agencies’ Management Teams During the COVID-19 Pandemic (for Priscilla Burnham-Riosa, Laura Mullins)
  • Ryan Plummer and Erica Harper (Environmental Sustainability Research Centre) — Partnership Innovation and Communication During COVID
  • Rebecca Raby (Child and Youth Studies) — Children’s Lives During Social Distancing
  • Claire Shingleton-Smith (Applied Disability Studies) — General Case Telehealth Parent Training for Young Children At-Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) (for Maurice Feldman, Julie Koudys)
  • Tony Volk (Child and Youth Studies) — The Online Study Library: A Response to COVID-19 Research Conditions

The deadline for completing projects under the Special COVID-19-Related Dean’s Discretionary Fund was recently extended to April 15, 2021. A second symposium featuring additional researchers and projects will be held in the spring.

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