Doctoral Students Turn to Video Conferencing to Defend Dissertations

March 27, 2020

As a precautionary measure, UArizona doctoral students are now defending their dissertations fully online. Rebecca Beadling, a PhD candidate in geosciences, is one such student.


As a precautionary measure, UArizona doctoral students are now defending their dissertations fully online. Rebecca Beadling, a PhD candidate in geosciences, is one such student.


Doctoral students usually defend their dissertations in a room filled with people. In what is the final step before graduation, they give a presentation demonstrating their scholarship to a committee of research professors in their field of study, their faculty advisor, family, and friends. Rebecca Beadling will be giving hers in an empty room, in front of a webcam.

When the University of Arizona formally announced on March 11 that classes would be strictly online for the rest of the semester following an extended spring break, Beadling, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geosciences, immediately texted a friend. They were both set to defend their dissertations within weeks, and both would now need to give their presentations online.

With Beadling’s defense scheduled for March 30, she had just 19 days to devise a plan.


(Photo by Emily Litvack/RII)

First, she called two friends who had already booked their flights to Arizona and told them to cancel. Next, she and her adviser, Joellen Russell, a professor of geosciences, decided on Zoom—a remote conferencing service—as the virtual gathering place for the presentation. Beadling had never used it before, but it sounded straightforward. Russell planned to participate from her office on campus. Beadling, whose condominium has unreliable internet service, needed to find somewhere else to give her presentation, and quickly booked a video conferencing room at the Environment and Natural Resources 2 Building on campus. Then, they scheduled a test run of the conference room’s technology with an IT specialist.

Beadling, wearing latex gloves and standing across the room from Russell, wearing latex gloves and a mask, waved to four committee members—one in New Jersey—and then signaled to the IT specialist that they were all set.

“It’ll be a little weird, but, honestly, the nice thing is that, without having to travel, more of my family and friends will be able to watch my dissertation,” said Beadling.

“I have had some exceptionally fine students here at the University of Arizona who have made real-world, global impacts but I think Becki’s is the finest dissertation I’ve been involved with,” said Russell.

During her doctoral program, Beadling has studied how well dozens of ocean climate models from across the globe stack up against real, observed data. Her work has focused on models of the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean and how their respective climates—including factors like salinity, density, and temperature—will shift as greenhouse gas emissions increase in the coming years. The point, she says, is to figure out which models produce highly accurate data versus which could use improvement. Her hope is to provide climatologists with the information they need to make the most accurate possible predictions about how oceanic climate will change over time. Likewise, what Beadling uncovers about the accuracy of existing models can help those who make them improve their models.

“No model is going to be perfect,” said Beadling. “But some models are going to perform better than others, so we should know which ones measure which factors most accurately and use those accordingly. Being aware of biases gives us power to make informed predictions.”

“To be completely honest, I’m still grieving the fact that we won’t have a room full of people to celebrate and cheer on Becki and that I won’t get to hug her at commencement. A student like her should not just go quietly. It has been the highlight of my career to help Becki get on her way, so it’s terribly sad,” said Russell. “But we are fierce, and we will keep things moving.”

Russell added that, despite the grief and sadness, she knows not gathering in person is the right call and appreciates the university’s decision to take precautionary measures: “I’ve never been so grateful to have a doctor as our university president. We’ve been careful and aggressive in doing as much as we can to stay safe ourselves and to protect others.”

Beadling recently accepted a prestigious, two-year Climate and Global Change postdoctoral fellowship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where she will continue to investigate climate models, how they’ve improved over time, and where they still fall short.

Said Russell, “This is not a small thing Becki is achieving—doing a defense in a time of pandemic. It’s truly extraordinary.”

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