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Persistence in a pandemic: College of Arts and Science students complete enriching summer experiences in science-based art, research

Posted by on Friday, October 16, 2020 in Research.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled many students’ original summer plans, College of Arts and Science students adapted quickly. Through technology, creativity, and determination, they found ways to expand their horizons and continue preparing for life after Vanderbilt.

Juniors Navya Thakkar, Skylar Cuevas, and Natalie Elliott all used their summers to complete hands-on research and art projects focused on the natural sciences.

Navya Thakkar ‘22
Navya Thakkar standing in a portico
Navya Thakkar ’22

Biological Sciences major, Art minor

Hometown: Mumbai, India

Navya completed a 10-week summer fellowship with Vanderbilt’s ArtLab, a cross-disciplinary program that explores the intersection of art, STEM, and design. Along with other student artists, she learned about the research conducted at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation and created artwork based on those efforts.



Q: Why did you decide to come to Vanderbilt?

A: The community. There is a culture of helping each other [and] creating a strong support system for everyone in the Vanderbilt community. I’ve never been one to thrive in a competitive environment, which is why the culture at Vanderbilt has helped me grow a lot as a person.

Q: What did you enjoy most about your summer experience?

A: I loved working in a field where I could combine my two biggest passions: art and science. For the longest time, I thought I had to choose between the two, and I was so lucky to be a part of a program that combines both of them so effectively.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced this summer, and how did you overcome it?

A: This was the first time I worked with a client to create a piece of art. It required a lot of communication and visualization skills that I have since learned are developed only through experience. I learned that being able to understand the client’s vision requires being able to ask the right questions, and being unafraid to say that you don’t understand something.

Skylar Cuevas ‘22
Skylar Cuevas sitting in front of a window
Skylar Cuevas ’22

Communication of Science & Technology major, Chemistry minor

Hometown: Pass Christian, Mississippi

Like Navya, Skylar was part of ArtLab’s artist-in-residence collaboration with the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation. She worked with the Byndloss Lab, which studies the connections between the gut microbiome, metabolism, and non-communicable inflammatory diseases.


Q: Why did you decide to come to Vanderbilt?

A: I knew it would be a great fit for me, since I am on the pre-med track but am also interested in a lot of other fields that Vanderbilt allows me to explore. I knew that Vanderbilt would challenge me and prepare me for whatever field I ultimately decide on in the future. The financial aid is unmatched, too!

art showing the outline of a human body and the intestines, with inset image of food
Art created by Skylar as part of her work with the Byndloss Lab

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced this summer, and how did you overcome it?

A: A big challenge I faced this summer was time management. Being at home created many distractions. I allocated strict timeslots for my summer project, work, and free time and held myself accountable. I created my own desk space in my room and tried to implement a routine that mimicked my routine at school. That helped tremendously.

Q: What advice would you give students who are thinking about their plans for next summer?

A: Start applying to summer programs or internships as soon as possible, as many great opportunities have deadlines as early as the fall semester. Also, the Immersion hub is a great place to look for internships. It’s made for Immersion project ideas, but it also lists short-term summer programs or internships that are not advertised much elsewhere. It really is a hidden gold mine!

Natalie Elliott ‘22
Natalie Elliott sitting on a beach with grass and sand in the background
Natalie Elliott ’22

Earth & Environmental Sciences and Communication of Science & Technology double major, Computer Science minor

Hometown: Amherst, Massachusetts

Natalie, who had been conducting paleontology and climate research with Earth & Environmental Sciences professor Maria Luisa Jorge during the spring semester, continued her research work virtually. Together with four friends, she also launched a remote after-school program to help local children find community and inspiration through online learning.


Q: What’s the most interesting thing you learned from your summer experience?

A: How much learning, the exchange of ideas, and excitement comes with a research project. I watched how my professors sparked conversation and raised ever-more-specific questions and ideas. It was a moment of “The more you know, the more you realize you have left to learn.”

Q: What advice would you give students who are thinking about their plans for next summer?

A: First, don’t let the intensity of Vanderbilt culture take over your planning for next summer. Treat the summer as an exciting opportunity to explore new experiences, rather than trying to find the internship you “should” have. Second, be confident in reaching out to people about opportunities. People are usually very excited to talk about work they enjoy, and even if something does not work out, there is no harm in exploring every avenue.

Q: What is the most important insight you’ve gained about yourself and your post-college plans through your studies?

A: Especially in A&S, your degree does not define the trajectory of your life or career post-college.

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