Doing Research Projects in the Wake of COVID-19

Recently, we’ve all had to do our best to adapt our coursework, extracurriculars, and past times to a remote format. Some activities – like hands-on research in a lab – may be difficult, or even impossible, to do over Zoom. For those of you looking to fill the gap, hackathons may be the solution. Hackathons are short programming events designed for students to learn new skills, meet new people, develop solutions to everyday problems, and win prizes. And because of the COVID-19 situation, many hackathons are turning virtual

To hear a little more about what exactly hackathons are and who they might be a good fit for, I interviewed Princeton sophomore and Director of the TechTogether New York hackathon, Soumya Gottipati. For those of you who have recently hard your internships canceled, Soumya also let me know about internship opportunities you might be interested in!

Hackathons often involve coding, but coding experience isn’t needed!

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

My name is Soumya Gottipati and I’m a sophomore studying Computer Science here at Princeton. I’m also the Director of TechTogether New York, a hackathon held in New York every year. We focus on helping gender-marginalized youth get into tech.

How do you think students can continue to get involved in research projects given the COVID-19 situation?

The situation is pretty tough for everyone. Being at home, we don’t have the resources we would normally have. Whether it’s doing research or starting a project that you could potentially do at a hackathon, it all starts with finding something you care about. Hackathons emphasize picking a problem that you would like to address – you can start out by doing that for yourself at home, or even as part of a virtual Hackathon. Ask yourself, what is something you want to tackle? Then try and find something tangible within that topic that you can work on. Reach out to your friends, or an expert in the field: it helps to have a team, a community of people who you can work with, bounce ideas off of, and share skills with.

Also, remember that you probably can’t solve the entirety of a problem. Use the resources you have to make a contribution, even if it seems small. It’s the accumulation of ‘small’ efforts that take us all closer to a solution.

What skills or prerequisite knowledge do people need to get involved in hackathons?

The biggest thing is dedication. You don’t need to be a veteran or even have experience in computer programming. The whole point is that you gain skills from attending the hackathon, not that you arrive already knowing everything you need to know. What you do need, however, is perseverance – sometimes you can’t see the end product of a project, and you need to be able to adjust, be flexible, and commit yourself. Hackathons scrunch projects into a 48-72 hour time window, or essentially over the course of a single weekend: this can be mentally demanding. So yes, hackathons might help you learn how to code in a specific language or some other technical skill, but what’s often overlooked is that they also teach you more generalizable research skills, like making a plan and executing it. This, I believe, is what makes them so rewarding.

How can people involve themselves in your hackathon, TechTogether New York?

Our hackathon is supposed to happen at the end of this year or the beginning of the next. That means that ‘hackers’ can’t quite register yet as applications haven’t opened yet. However, if you’re interested in making a difference through the organization of this hackathon, I’d recommend you apply for consideration to be on the team. I know a lot of us have had our former plans canceled, so this is a great way to contribute to innovation, community-formation, and problem-solving beyond doing projects themselves.

For more information on the positions Soumya referenced in her interview, check out the TechTogether main page. In any case, I hope you learned something about hackathons and consider signing up for a virtual one!

–Kamron Soldozy, Natural Sciences Correspondent