Carnegie Mellon University
May 07, 2020

Defending by Zoom

Graduate Students Log on for Virtual Thesis Defenses

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications

As Surya Aggarwal sat in a Zoom breakout room while his committee decided his fate, he thought about what a surreal experience it was to defend his thesis virtually.

“This is one of those milestone events that you think about a lot — how is the defense going to go and what are you going to be able to do?” said the biological sciences graduate student. And a videoconference defense is not exactly a scenario that comes to mind.

In early March, Carnegie Mellon University moved to remote instruction and closed all but essential campus operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. As classes, meetings and office hours moved to Zoom, so did graduate student thesis defenses. Despite the unusual circumstances, several MCS Ph.D. candidates ran with this new normal to make their defense experiences memorable.

Aggarwal widely advertised his defense to academic communities as well as his collaborators, family and friends. Roughly 90 people tuned in from time zones far and wide, including Australia, Korea, Portugal, the United Kingdom and India.

“It was great that a lot of people were able to attend, especially my family because they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” said Aggarwal. “And it gave an opportunity for a lot of my collaborators to attend and ask me questions about my work.”

Mathematical Sciences Ph.D. candidate Antoine Remond-Tiedrez agreed that it was a silver lining to be able to invite friends and colleagues who would not have been able to attend physically. His family called in from Luxembourg and France and friends and colleagues joined from all over, including Prague, London, Ontario and stateside from Texas and Philadelphia. 

Chemistry graduate student Zoe Wright took the unique approach of livestreaming her defense. She was inspired by the thread #COVID19ThesisDefense on Twitter, where graduate students created a platform to share their defenses with the broader public.

“Sharing by Zoom and live stream definitely helped stave off the loneliness of defending my thesis from a corner in my bedroom, and turned a weird situation into one that I’ll actually remember fondly,” said Wright.

A screenshot of Zoe's thesis defense
A screenshot of Zoe Wright's thesis defense presentation over Zoom. 

But Aggarwal, Remond-Tiedrez and Wright also agree that there were challenges to presenting their many years of work this way.

Figuring out how to defend remotely added an additional level of stress. “There was a steep learning curve,” Wright said. In addition to finishing her thesis and defense presentation, she had to figure out how to make a lot of different pieces of technology work together — setting zoom privacy controls, livestreaming from YouTube and linking Zoom and YouTube — while hoping the technology would not fail her during the presentation.

On the day of, everything went smoothly and Wright felt calm and comfortable. And it helped that her “committee felt a little less intimidating as small rectangles on the screen,” she joked.

Remond-Tiedrez felt that he lacked robust models for how to present his research over video. As part of his defense, he incorporated a practical demonstration of a spinning top to illustrate the mathematical concepts that come into play when dealing with microscopic structures in fluids.

“Thankfully, it went smoothly, but it certainly required more planning that if this had been an in-person presentation,” he noted. 

For Aggarwal, he yearned to connect with the audience in ways that just aren’t possible through a screen. It’s hard to get real time feedback of how the audience is following the presentation because you can’t see many of their faces or interactively engage with your presentation, he said.

“And the organic nature of questions that get asked in the middle gets lost because everyone is trying to be structured,” he added.

In the end, the newly-named doctorates are happy with the way they navigated their defenses. 

Aggarwal appreciated being able to maintain a sense of normalcy. “Being able to hold this defense even though the world seems to be at pause was great.”

Like Aggarwal and Remond-Tiedrez, Wright was happy to be able to share her defense with her family, friends and others who would not have been able to travel to see her defense in person. 

Wright even hopes this experience might change how students approach in-person thesis defenses moving forward.

“It’s really special that anyone who has an open thesis defense could share it with loved ones who can’t travel, or that the public can see cutting-edge science happening in real time through a platform like Twitter.”