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Virtual defence

Defending Memorial's first online thesis – during a pandemic

Campus and Community

By Michelle Osmond

It’s not unusual for events to be postponed in Newfoundland and Labrador because of the weather. Anyone remember Snowmaggedon?

Augustine Devasahayam became the first graduate student to defend his thesis virtually after COVID-19 shut campus down.
Photo: Richard Blenkinsop

So Augustine Devasahayam (AJ), a student in the Faculty of Medicine, didn’t panic when a snowstorm on March 2 delayed his PhD defence until March 19.

Enter a global pandemic.

On March 15, Memorial University suspended all classes and labs. On March 17 it was declared that all PhD defences would be conducted entirely online. The entire campus was thrown for a loop, including Mr. Devasahayam.

First time for everything

He watched the changing state of affairs in the province closely, worrying all the while that his defence would be cancelled a second time.

He says it was a pleasant surprise when he received an email from Dr. Danine Farquharson, associate dean of the School of Graduate Studies on March 17 that he would be defending his thesis online.

“I certainly was not going to let the emerging situation stop me from defending my thesis. I quickly said yes.”

Mr. Devasahayam, a member of Dr. Michelle Ploughman’s Recovery and Performance Laboratory, was then scheduled to make Memorial University’s first virtual thesis presentation. He had two days to prepare an online defence of his most important work.

The process started with a presentation that lasted about 25 minutes and then proceeded to the oral defence, during which there were two rounds of questioning by three examiners.

“I certainly did have the comfort of home.” — Augustine Devasahayam

Technical difficulties added an extra layer of concern to the situation.

As soon as he started answering questions from the examiners, he says he became fully immersed in the virtual examination mode.

“I did not realize the examination lasted close to four hours until it was over. I doubt I would have felt any different if I had defended my thesis in person.”

Well prepared

“I took note of all that could possibly make me nervous and did everything I could to make myself feel confident,” Mr. Devasahayam said about his preparation.

The School of Graduate Studies worked with the Faculty of Medicine to move the PhD defence to an online platform.
Photo: Submitted

“I suited up in a blazer, which made me feel assured, and was ready to go online an hour before the exam. Although I did not do anything different than what I would have done for an exam in person, I certainly did have the comfort of home.”

He says the detailed instructions sent by Dr. Farquharson also helped.

‘A new challenge’

Working closely with academic units regarding scheduling, including the Office of Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Medicine, the School of Graduate Studies traditionally facilitates about one graduate student defence per day between March and May.

“Memorial University is proud of him.” — Dr. Danine Farquharson

It’s a busy time leading up to spring convocation.

“AJ’s defence process was far more complicated if only because getting in touch with all the participants was a new challenge,” said Dr. Farquharson. “Also, AJ’s defence was at a time where the situation related to what was allowed to happen on campus and what was not permitted seemed to change every day.”

Lessons learned

There were lessons learned with Mr. Devasahayam’s experience as Memorial’s first virtual defence, says Dr. Farquharson.

“We all learned much deeper patience,” she said. “We were all reminded that our colleagues are incredibly generous and always have the students’ best interests as our priority. Everyone involved in this defence, and the several we’ve had since, have been incredibly kind and helpful.

“AJ is an amazingly gracious and brilliant person,” she added. “I was thrilled with how he did at the defence. Memorial University is proud of him.”

Mr. Devasahayam is grateful he was able to defend his thesis at all under the circumstances. He does say, however, it would have felt more ceremonious if he was able to attend in person.

“It did feel different for the first few days, as I was not able to share the happiness in person with my lab mates. My supervisor, Dr. Michelle Ploughman, arranged for an online meeting after few days and we hung out virtually.”

After some well-deserved time off (at home), Mr. Devasahayam has started working on making the changes to his thesis suggested by the examiners. He’s already looking for opportunities in his field, with the hope of pursuing a career that will allow him “to contribute to change for the better.”

For more information on Mr. Devasahayam’s thesis, A Novel Exercise Initiative to Improve Walking Ability in People with Multiple Sclerosis Having Higher Levels of Disability, visit the Gazette story, No looking back.

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