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Thanks for Tuning In: Swanson School Students Present Virtual Dissertation Defenses

Pitt engineering graduate students adapt to current work environments and successfully defend dissertations remotely

PITTSBURGH (March 30, 2020) … After years of classwork, conducting research, collecting results and attempting to publish in peer-reviewed journals, Gary Yu was finally ready to present his dissertation defense to his committee members. He got dressed, confidently entered the room, signed in to Microsoft Teams, and began the virtual meeting. 

In the days of social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic, this was the only way for Yu, an MD/PhD student in the Department of Bioengineering, to complete the PhD portion of his degree on schedule. 

Yu is not alone. Across the University, graduate students find themselves reaching long-anticipated academic milestones alone, at home, behind a computer monitor. However, even under these unusual conditions, they are making the best of it - and succeeding.

Yu’s presentation started with an introduction from his advisor, John Pacella, associate professor of medicine and bioengineering. The audience then fell silent as they muted their microphones to avoid interruptions and turned off their cameras to save bandwidth. According to Yu, this absence of communication was one of the main challenges in defending remotely.

“Usually when I present, I'm reassured by eye contact and other gestures of understanding that my audience is paying attention,” he said. “When I was presenting my dissertation, there were moments where I had doubts creep up in the back of my mind. Since it was completely silent, aside from myself, I wondered whether I had lagged out or disconnected from the call because of computer or internet issues.”

Yu continued to present his work on a new microbubble contrast agent with anti-inflammatory properties that can be used with therapeutic ultrasound pulses to treat cardiovascular disease. He recalled a moment of relief after an audience member broke the silence by opening a bag of chips on the other end.

He eventually adapted to this new environment and noticed that he began to pick up online vernacular as he subconsciously quipped, “Thanks for tuning in,” at the end of his presentation. After his committee members took turns asking questions, they informed Yu that he successfully passed his defense.

Mohammed Sleiman, too, successfully defended his thesis virtually. His advisor, Brandon Grainger, created two “rooms” in Zoom, inviting Sleiman to one and using the second for committee discussion after the defense. Despite the unusual circumstances, Sleiman, who was studying the energy conversion process in electric vehicles, passed with flying colors and earned his MS in electrical engineering. Grainger is an Eaton Faculty Fellow, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and associate director of the Swanson School’s Electric Power Engineering program.

“After a few minutes in the other room, the committee came back to my Zoom room and announced my pass!” recalled Sleiman. “It was a thrilling experience to present to professors online. The sad thing is that I missed taking photos for memories with them, because we were far away.”

Grainger, too, noted that one downside of virtual defenses is the absence of in-person celebration with mentors, friends and loved ones that usually comes after them.

“The online defense is a bit abnormal, but Mohammed handled the challenges well,” said Grainger. “When a defense is live, in a conference room, the room is typically filled with labmates, friends, and sometimes family, but having a virtual meeting did not allow for this to happen.”

Despite the unusual circumstances, both Yu and Sleiman were able to make the best of their experiences. 

The necessity of social distancing did not stop Sleiman from celebrating; after he heard the news that he passed, he headed to the Cathedral of Learning, still in his suit, to snap a few photos to commemorate the moment for social media.

Yu, too, did his best to embrace the quirks of presenting to an audience you cannot see.

“Don't be nervous about the silence you will likely encounter,” suggested Yu. “Do your best to have good sound quality and minimize background noise. Enjoy feeling like a Youtuber or an academic streamer, and make sure to celebrate - responsibly - after your defense!”

If you find yourself preparing for a virtual defense, here are some tips to make the best of it:

  1. Find a good streaming platform. Swanson School students have successfully used Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

  2. Consider having your audience turn off video to avoid overwhelming the connection.

  3. Ask the audience to remain muted when they are not contributing to the discussion. This will decrease background noise and feedback.

  4. Work with your advisor to test your technology ahead of time to make sure you have everything you need.

  5. Make sure to be comfortable and have hydration close by!

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Author: Maggie Pavlick and Leah Russell

Contact: Leah Russell