Research Showcase is one of the largest events for graduate and undergraduate students on the Washington State University Vancouver campus to showcase their research.

But when the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order threatened to cancel the annual event, Christine Portfors, vice chancellor for research and graduate education, and her assistant Holly Davis, knew that they had to find some other way to host Research Showcase. They immediately knew to ask Dene Grigar, professor and director of The Creative Media and Digital Culture Program, to find a solution that would allow them to host the showcase virtually.

Since the early 1990s, Grigar has been working in the virtual world. In 1995, she defended her dissertation in a virtual site. From 1997-2006, she hosted her own virtual environment, NouspaceMOO, where more than 200 researchers across the world interacted with each other, moving around and interacting with objects. This type of virtual space inspired the development of Second Life. In this virtual space, Grigar and researchers hosted poetry readings, collaborated on research projects, and even played Scrabble. As an artist, Grigar has also curated art shows using virtual spaces and performed virtually.

“I curate art shows around the world that have a face-to-face component, but also have an exhibition of the art work that people are able to view at a distance. There’s a lot of us that live in this virtual space and use it to show everything from art to research,” said Grigar. “I’ve spent so much of my career in the virtual world that moving the Research Showcase into a virtual space seemed like the right solution.”

Grigar worked with Greg Philbrook, instructional and technical specialist with The Creative Media and Digital Culture Program, to develop the gallery site, judges’ portal, and the awards ceremony using Zoom. Grigar conceptualized how to use the space and developed content for it.

Philbrook then spent several weeks coding and developing the website. He also built an app for the virtual exhibition.

“Students matter. Their work matters. Even though life as we know it was crumbling and changing, that didn’t mean that our students work needed to be left behind,” said Holly Davis, assistant to the vice chancellor for research at WSU Vancouver. “Both Vice Chancellor for Research Christine Portfors and I feel very passionately about Research Showcase and it was something we wanted to still host. We are happy to have found a solution that still allows us to celebrate the work of our students.”

“Using eDNA to assess the effects of Sierra Nevada meadow restoration on invasive species and sensitive amphibians” by Nicolette Nelson, a M.S. student in the Community Ecology Lab at WSU Vancouver, won first place.

The virtual event was held over five days. Posters were judged via an Online Research Showcase Gallery that features students and their posters. Poster winners were announced during the Virtual Award Ceremony on Friday, April 24, hosted by Portfors and supported by Grigar, Philbrook, and Davis. The awards ceremony was recorded for participants to share with their family and friends. Most of the presenting students attended the awards ceremony.

“I was thrilled to be able to present the winners with their awards virtually and applaud all the students for their hard work on their research projects,” said Portfors. “Highlighting the research and scholarly activities of our graduate and undergraduate students at Research Showcase is one of the best parts of my job.”

“We are a research university. This is a staple event that celebrates the very reason we are here,” said Davis. “As faculty and administrators, we need to set an example. If we need to go online, then we will set the example to go online.”

Originally, the event organizers had received 72 entries to be part of Research Showcase. After the decision was made to move the event online, event organizers reached out to the students that had submitted entries to ask if they wanted to be a part of the virtual showcase. Event organizers received responses from 47 students confirming their participation.

“We thought we would have 25-30 entries. So we were surprised to get 47 entries for the Research Showcase,” said Davis.

Normally, students have a choice to participate in either the poster session or podium presentations. However, organizers decided to forego the podium presentations in the new virtual format. Students were asked to submit a PDF version of their poster, along with a short biography and photo.

“Technology has allowed us to still host the event. But now we have to start getting people to think about Zoom and other virtual spaces as a medium that we can humanize. It was important for us to not lose the human interactions that an in-person event provides,” said Grigar. “To keep it personal, we asked students for a photo and bio to provide judges with more information about students, since judges wouldn’t be able to interact with students while judging the posters. Additionally, we used the pictures during the awards ceremony, along with a photo of the award certificate and information about the winner’s research.”

Awards for posters selected for excellence by the judges will be mailed to students. Along with a certificate, poster winners will also receive monetary awards. Davis worked with Development and Alumni Relations to find donors to provide a monetary award. Several donors provided financial support for the awards, including WSU Regent Mike Worthy, president and CEO of WW Payment Systems, Inc., and the Port of Vancouver.

“Donors make it possible for us to provide our students with a monetary award. Their donations show how invested they are in the WSU Vancouver campus,” said Davis. “We believe and want to invest in the research our students have been working on and we are excited that we could continue to do so again this year.”

With the first virtual Research Showcase now complete, Grigar and Davis suggest that WSU Vancouver may include a virtual component to the showcase in future years.

More information about the WSU Vancouver Virtual Research Showcase is available online.