Zooming through a thesis defense


By Jamie Oberdick

UNIVERSITY PARK Pa. — A master’s degree thesis defense is difficult enough under normal circumstances: in a room in front of a thesis committee. For Sabrina Carrozzi, an integrated undergraduate/graduate student in biomedical engineering at Penn State, COVID-19 added another level of difficulty by mandating social distancing guidelines.

“We had two options — to do the defense over Zoom or gather the committee and myself in a room where we could each be six feet apart,” Carrozzi said. “We chose the first option so that others could also attend my defense via Zoom.”

Zoom, an online platform used for videoconferencing, offered one nice advantage for Carrozzi, as she was able to record her defense to share with friends and family. But a remote thesis defense is highly unusual and comes with its own challenges.

“The biggest challenge was not being able to read the committee’s body language,” Carrozzi said. “I rely a lot on body language as a teaching assistant to determine the level of student understanding. So, it was difficult to judge the appropriate speed of my talk or if I should have clarified certain topics a bit more. I just had to use my best judgment.”

Carrozzi’s defense focused on anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructive surgeries, which are common among active individuals and those who play sports. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1 in 3,000 Americans will tear or damage their ACL at some point in their life. The ACL, located within the knee, is essential for stable joint motion.

After surgery, there is a chance the newly repaired ACL can fail and tear again. Carrozzi’s thesis focused on examining the failure rates between two commonly used repair techniques using ligaments. These techniques are an autograft, when a ligament is taken from another part of the patient’s body, or an allograft, when a ligament comes from a cadaver.

“The goal of my thesis project was to develop a protocol to examine the differences between the two, with an ultimate aim to improve surgical outcomes post-op for those who receive an ACL reconstructive surgery,” Carrozzi said.

Carrozzi conducts her research in the lab of Spencer Szczesny, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Carrozzi said she was grateful for her lab mates and Szczesny, who helped her prepare for her thesis.

“I was able to rehearse my presentation with my lab a couple of times before my actual defense over Zoom, so there were no surprises,” Carrozzi said. “My lab was really great about helping me practice and thinking of ways to improve my presentation.”

As for defending over Zoom being different than in-person, Carrozzi said she was actually more relaxed. And it paid off — she passed.

Now that Carrozzi has defended her master’s thesis, she is practicing responsible social distancing and staying at home, painting miniatures and tackling her personal reading list. Her plans are to begin medical school in the fall and is still deciding on where.

Most everyone remembers their thesis defense, but Carrozzi said that the unusual circumstances will make hers especially memorable.

“While it was not ideal to do it virtually, I’m glad I was able to successfully defend my thesis and pass,” Carrozzi said. “A thesis defense is a huge milestone, and thanks to Zoom, I will always have a recording of it.”


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Megan Lakatos


“A thesis defense is a huge milestone, and thanks to Zoom, I will always have a recording of it.”
—Sabrina Carrozzi, biomedical engineering graduate student