Pitt’s pandemic heroes: Moving fellowship online took creativity


Getting hired last year as director of research and creative programs in the University Honors College was a bit of a dream come true for Brett Say.

Brett SayHaving worked with everyone from engineers to health science professionals previously on multiple interdisciplinary project, “I’d fallen in love with research and I liked interdisciplinary research,” Say said. “If I could work at the top of a giant castle, that would be ideal too.”

Alas, this spring COVID-19 stormed the castle ­— the Honors College is housed on the three highest floors of the Cathedral of Learning — and everywhere else on campus. Say had to move his main projects online, including overseeing half a dozen fellowships, led by the Brackenridge Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

This year was the 30th anniversary for the Brackenridge program, which brings students together with faculty from disparate departments — in person, of course.

“We made the awards based on the merits of the original applications, as if nothing had changed,” Say said. Then he and his colleagues worked with the Brackenridge awardees to adapt their proposals to the new reality.

“Everybody came up with ideas, so that was pretty exciting. The staff at the University Center for Teaching and Learning, Pitt IT, my co-workers, and many other people helped me provide a fellowship experience that I think was really positive for the students. I know it was for me.”

Going online meant introducing new ideas — in Say’s case, the Ideathon, where teams of students used their varying disciplinary backgrounds to develop a mock proposal for a new research project. They were asked to propose research focused on equity and accessibility in higher education, devising ways in which knowledge from STEM, the social sciences and arts and humanities could work together to address their research topic.

The Brackenridge fellows have met online once a week, learning foundational concepts in research, “to help students not only understand their own research better but the research people are doing throughout the Pitt community,” said Say. They’ve attended online workshops on such topics as developing conference presentations and conducting research interviews. The students are now blogging about what they have learned.

As for being forced online: “I think it’s kind of fun if I dare use the word,” he said. “I see people talking more. I don’t know if they feel more comfortable in their homes, or it’s the technology. But you have a broader conversation with people in the room. Maybe that will open up some ideas for when people return to campus.

“The students I see are humbling to me,” he added. “They are super-bright and super-motivated. Anything I can do to help those students, and the faculty and staff who are helping those students, is time well spent.”

Say has other work in the Honors College: He is developing the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review; creating an archival research program in Pitt’s archives, including a one-credit seminar; and teaching a course on the foundations of research, alongside four scholar-mentors in different fields. And he does a lot of individual student advising.

“You don’t have to be an honors student to come talk to me about research,” he noted. “You don’t have to be an honors student to apply to the fellowships.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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