Student Voices: Undergraduate Research Assistants Riya Bhushan and Sophie Rosenthal

The two traveled to Iceland to participate in the Arctic Circle Assembly on the gender impact of C0VID-19.

February 7, 2023

Riya Bhushan and Sophie Rosenthal

Riya Bhushan (l) and Sophie Rosenthal at the Frioheimar Tomato Farm, which grows its tomatoes in a geothermal-powered greenhouse. (Photos courtesy of Riya Bhushan)

Undergraduate research assistants senior Riya Bhushan and junior Sophie Rosenthal, both in the Elliott School of International Affairs, traveled to Iceland with professor Marya Rozanova-Smith to help present at a conference “The Arctic Circle Assembly.” GW Today asked the two to write about their experience:

We accompanied professor Marya Rozanova-Smith, a lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs and a research professor in George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, to help present preliminary findings of a project, “the Understanding the Gendered Impacts of COVID-19 (COVID-GEA) at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland.

We were two of 50 youth representatives in attendance out of more than 2,000 Arctic experts and policymakers. We were motivated to join the COVID-GEA project after taking Rozanova-Smith’s Arctic Affairs class, where we began developing a tracker for COVID-19 gender-responsive policies for selected Arctic communities at the national, regional and local levels.

At the conference last semester, we assisted Rozanova-Smith with a panel she co-hosted, “Arctic Urban Communities: Resilience Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.” This panel offered a platform for four Arctic mayors of Fairbanks, Alaska, Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Akureyri, Iceland, and Luleå, Sweden. She was joined by two Indigenous scholars Dalee Sambo Dorough and Varvara Korkina in sharing successes and challenges of their communities’ responses to the pandemic.

Witnessing this dialogue about resilience in their communities allowed the audience to reflect on how collective effort can positively influence a community in the face of COVID-19. Additionally, it was refreshing to see decision-makers, experts and stakeholders converse in a space where honesty and open conversation were encouraged. This discourse among leaders was something that no book or website could offer.

Sophie Rosenthal and Riya Bhushan
Sophie Rosenthal (l) and Riya Bhushan enjoying breakfast at the conference hotel.

In a continuation of exceptional opportunities Rozanova-Smith has offered her research team, we presented the project’s preliminary findings on Alaskan communities to the members of the project “Young Arctic Leaders in Research and Policy” (YALReP) and others. With limited undergraduate representation at the conference, we were the only two undergraduate students granted a chance to present. Using the case study of Alaska, we discussed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, specifically on Indigenous women in remote communities. We learned what policy measures were missing or neglected by local governments for the Arctic youth community and other demographics. Previously, the COVID-GEA research team had met with some of the Indigenous youth leaders over Zoom, but in person, they shared myriad ideas, listened to feedback and planned the next steps of the project in an organic and inspirational manner.

However, the most impactful part of the trip was the genuine bonds formed. At the beginning of the trip, we explored the city with panelist Rebecca Alty, the mayor of Yellowknife. We visited city hall and the public library. Strolling through Reykjavik was the perfect setting to compare our findings with they mayor’s experiences.

Arctic researchers
Riya Bhushan (l), professor Marya Rozanova-Smith and Sophie Rosenthal.

Furthermore, the team shared dinners with project partners, mayors and Indigenous leaders. People whom we had previously only heard about or met online were now sitting together, brainstorming, connecting with each other’s work and how it can better address their communities’ needs. We also shared personal stories, laughing like old friends rather than new acquaintances. We will never forget running jokes, late nights spent chasing (and finding!) the Northern Lights, or the deeply personal conversations and moments of connection we found with each individual.

This research has become one of the proudest tasks we’ve undertaken. It solidified dreams of working toward a Ph.D. and becoming a research professional (Riya) and defined goals of international cooperation and effective and equitable solutions for complex issues (Sophie).

Overall, it was a wonderful trip! We would like to thank professor Rozanova-Smith for being a wonderful mentor and the rest of the COVID-GEA team for their hard work. Truly, this was an opportunity of a lifetime!

Arctic COVID-19 research panel
The panel, "Arctic Urban Communities: Resilience Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic," including Professor Rozanova-Smith at the far right.

If you’re interested in learning more about the COVID-GEA project, please visit