Undergraduate Research Amid COVID-19

An insight into how my undergraduate research experience has been affected by COVID-19.

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Many people told me to 'expect the unexpected' when it comes to research, but I certainly was not expecting anything as extreme as a global pandemic!

I was very fortunate that my project did not have to change too much content-wise compared to those of my peers, since technically all I required was a pen, some paper, and a laptop to do the mathematical bits of my research project. However, I did encounter a few challenges which I thought I would share, since I think it is enlightening to see how other projects have been affected and the new challenges people have had to face as a result of COVID-19.

My project looks at twelve tone music from an abstract algebra perspective, so the main restriction I’ve had is the limited access to sheet music of the works I want to analyse and collect data from. With many of the composers relevant to my project being quite modern, their music is still copyrighted and therefore not in the public domain, so the only access I would have to it would be through the library, archives, or purchasing it online for a hefty price. Since I wanted to conduct data analysis, the more music I looked at, the more data I would have and the better picture I would build. However, with no access to the library or archives, and with purchasing sheet music to the many works I wanted to look at not being very economical at all, I have had to shift my focus solely to the earlier composers rather than a mix of the earlier and later composers, and I have not been able to look at as many works as I had hoped, which has probably affected the accuracy of my results to quite a large extent. Coming to terms with this mentally has definitely been a challenge, but I’ve been constantly reminding myself that research does not always go to plan, so it’s not always possible to get the results you want.

The joys of research involve having sheets of paper covering the whole of your desk

In addition to this, COVID-19 seemed to exacerbate all the problems I faced last summer, which made the majority of the solutions I had found to those issues largely ineffective this time round. For example, last summer I found research pretty lonely at times, but the way I dealt with this was by maximising time spent with other people, including other fellow Laidlaw scholars who understood the way I was feeling and with whom I could discuss my thoughts and worries. With restrictions to social interaction such as lockdown, and the other Laidlaw scholars being spread all over the world, it was even easier to get lonely, so it was even more vital that I kept in contact with other people over the phone or via social media.

North Street, St Andrews during lockdown

Last summer, I also felt the ‘Bubble’ nature of St Andrews affecting my ability to work for long periods of time, so instead of forcing myself to work constantly 9-5, I made sure I took short breaks and that I switched up study spots once in a while to keep myself mentally refreshed. However, not only was I stuck in St Andrews this summer, but I was also confined to a single room for the entirety of the research period. Additionally, a few of my neighbours seemed to be quite the avid gamer, so hearing a lot of excited and intense shouting through the walls during the day and night, and not being able to relocate to a new study space, really highlighted the fact that I was trapped in this not-so-ideal-for-working environment. It was a struggle to say the least, but I’m sure that going outside to get some fresh air each day certainly had a part to play in helping me get through it all!

I could go on and on, but in retrospect, I appreciate that others have had it a lot worse than me. I've come out of the research period with one of the most enriching experiences ever, so I'm extremely grateful. More importantly, my heart goes out to everyone who has been severely affected by COVID-19.

I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Professor Peter Cameron, for his help during these busy and chaotic times, the Laidlaw team for organising a valuable summer programme accessible from all over the world, and Lord Laidlaw for his generosity.

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Molly Chung

Mathematics Student, University of St Andrews

I'm a Mathematics student at University of St Andrews. My research looks at twelve tone music from an abstract algebra perspective, with the hopes of gaining insight into the thoughts and compositional methods of various composers.

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