Aug. 1, 2017 | Undergraduate scientists from across Arkansas wore buttons provided by the UAMS Graduate School that said “Ask Me about My Research” July 26 at the Central Arkansas Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium.
“Talking about science should be like talking about the weather. It should come that naturally,” said Grover P. Miller, Ph.D., professor in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department in the UAMS College of Medicine. Miller co-directs the symposium with his department chair, Kevin D. Raney, Ph.D.
Through poster talks, oral presentations and networking with faculty and fellow students, undergraduates studying biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and computational sciences had plenty of opportunities to practice communicating about their scientific interests – or what Miller calls practicing the “dialogue of science.”
“The symposium is set up to be very practical and very realistic,” Miller said. “If these students choose to continue careers in science, this venue is very similar to the types of symposiums they will participate in to share their research. And beyond that, science communication is very important. The ability to speak about your research – not just with each other, but with the wider world – is a critical skill.”
About 250 participants filled both floors of the I. Dodd Wilson Education Building at UAMS, including 120 undergrads, 60 undergraduate faculty and research mentors from 14 colleges and universities across the state as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration National Center for Toxicological Research at Jefferson.
Students from Arkansas and from outside the state participated and gained firsthand experience on what research is possible in Arkansas. Student projects were the product of formal undergraduate summer research programs, including four on the UAMS campus and programs at other institutions as well as those by independently supported faculty mentors.
Daniel Blankson, a rising senior at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, described himself as “a little shy.” Nevertheless, he said he gave a poster talk at the symposium to build his confidence in speaking about his work. A math and computer science double major, he participated in the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) summer research program at UAMS. He worked on a web tool that allows people to quickly and intuitively look up drug interactions between prescription drugs and natural remedies like vitamins, herbs and supplements.
He was excited by the opportunity to work on a project with such a direct and immediate impact on the public and said the experience will likely help him settle his career plans.
“This gave me an idea of what it feels like to be a Ph.D. student, what your daily activities look like, and it set up some building blocks for the future for me,” Blankson said.
Sarah Glass, a rising junior in biochemistry and molecular biology at Hendrix College in Conway, presented a poster on her summer research project exploring screening methods for ovarian cancer. She carried out this research through the Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program supported by the UAMS Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Although Glass was pretty sure she wanted to do scientific research as a career before she participated in the summer program, she said you don’t really know until you try.
“I wanted to get experience doing research,” Glass said. “I wanted to get in there, get my hands dirty, try it out and see if it really is the career for me.”
Glass said she especially appreciated that her mentor, Karen Abbott, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, took the time to talk to her not only about science, but about life as well.
“She sat us all down and said, ‘this is what I think are your strengths, these are your weaknesses, and this or that might be the right career for you,’ which I found particularly helpful as I’m trying to make those types of decisions,” Glass said. “And with the science, I learned that a lot of the process is trying something out, seeing what works, and if it doesn’t work, problem-solving so that you can move on. You don’t let yourself get stuck when something doesn’t do what you think it will.”
Miller said experiences like Glass’ are exactly what is so great about summer research projects for undergrads. Those students usually only have course lab experience briefly over a week during a semester, where they carry out canned experiments that always work. By contrast, the summer provides an eight- to 10-week stretch of intense research experiences, including the realistic ups and downs.
“There are exciting moments, there is failure, and there is growth,” Miller said. “You grow both as a person and a scientist, and, hopefully, you grow the overall body of knowledge. Summer research and the longer block of time involved creates the space for those experiences.”
The symposium concluded with a talk by Craig Forrest, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who spoke about the twists and turns in his research and his career. For him, the ultimate message was that an interest in science was the spark that continued to drive him forward and could for the students as well.
Both in the lab and on their career path, Miller said, he hopes the summer research programs and the symposium gave students the tools to “blaze their own trails.”
The event is hosted by the Graduate School and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UAMS as well as the National Institutes of Health-supported INBRE program and the UAMS Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) to Increase Diversity in Research.
In its sixth year, the program continues to grow as word spreads and more of the undergraduate student research community participates.
“Each year we get a little bit bigger,” Miller said. “We’re almost at capacity now, which may present challenges with space next year – but it’s a good problem to have.”