This week at Experimental Biology, I had the pleasure of meeting several talented undergraduates attending the meeting with their advisors. These students were participants of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) program led by ASPET and received travel awards to attend the meeting. Others were selected to participate in the ASPET Best Abstract Competition due to their outstanding research. As I interviewed these students and their faculty, I realized that the students attending this conference represent the best undergraduate researchers across the United States. While graduate students, postdocs and faculty may have resources to fund travel to meetings, few undergraduates receive that opportunity. Their attendance at this meeting is a testament to their hard work, intelligence, and commitment to research. As an undergraduate, I went on a road trip with my advisors to a national meeting in Chicago. That experience had a profound impact on my view of science and career goals. I also gained valuable connections at the meeting that have benefited me through the years. I believe that many scientists find their passion for research rekindled at national meetings. Imagine what the impact it must have on students new to science.
Senior Joshua Sheetz is majoring in Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and worked in the lab of Dr. Henrik Dohlman from the Department of Pharmacology in the SURF program. Sheetz received a travel award this year through SURF to attend Experimental Biology. When asked why he wanted to attend EB, he said he was excited about, “being able to gain experience talking about my research and hearing leaders in the field speak throughout the week.” He is planning to begin his graduate studies in Pharmacology at Yale University this fall. Sheetz is interested in meeting other students to learn about the grad school experience, as well as tips for the application process. Dr. Dohlman is happy to have Joshua join him at EB. “His lab experience represents a tiny fraction of experimental pharmacology. It is important to be exposed to other questions and approaches. It will help in finding a question they can be passionate about, and also introduce them to new approaches that may be common in one field but not another. New approaches lead to new discoveries,” he said. He encourages his students to attend the keynote lectures while at Experimental Biology. “It may be only opportunity they get to hear such prominent scientists speak about their work.”
Alexandra Van Hall is a junior Chemistry major at the University at Buffalo who received a SURF travel award with Dr. Margarita Dubocovich in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. “I’m just excited for the poster sessions. This is my first big conference that I’ve been able to come to,” Van Hall said. “I want to go into academia, so I really want to get a feel of what these meetings are like.” Advisor Dr. Dubocovich encourages her students to attend national meetings such as Experimental Biology. “We have to show them how much fun in some ways it is to do scientific research and what a privilege we have. I was very privileged to attend many meetings and network and meet leaders in pharmacology as a junior scientist.” She hopes that her undergraduates will be able to network, meet people, and observe the recognition of good research and hard work at Experimental Biology.
Bao Vi Vo, a senior at Carroll University, performed research through the SURF program at The Medical College of Wisconsin in the lab of Dr. John Imig. This is her first time at Experimental Biology, and she plans to attend graduate school in Pharmacology. “I presented my poster here, so I got excited to talk about my research with other people. When I went to the meeting I met many other people from different places,” she said. Dr. Imig supports undergraduates at national meetings because he likes them, “to come to meetings, get experience, especially if they want to go on to grad school to kind of get the experience of what it’s like.” He also noted that, “they have to see what it’s like and you get excitement from these meetings.”
Senior Neuroscience major Sneha Gupta from Washington and Jefferson College won the ASPET Student/Postdoc Best Abstract award for the undergraduate division of Behavioral Pharmacology, presenting her research with Dr. Katie Davis of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She has greatly enjoyed attending sessions on prions and the effects of aging on the brain, two areas of special interest to her. Dr. Davis wants her own students to have more opportunities to attend national meetings than she did as a student. She hopes that they gain more neuroscience experience and learn about behavioral pharmacology from other scientists during their time at Experimental Biology.
Caitlin Caperton, SURF participant and second place winner of the undergraduate Behavioral Pharmacology division of this year’s ASPET Student/Postdoc Best Abstract Competition, is a senior Psychology major at University of Arkansas-Little Rock. She performed research in the lab of Dr. William Fantegrossi in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. This is Caitlin’s first time attending a national conference. “I think it was a great opportunity just to learn about the process of coming to a meeting like this, like writing the abstract and putting together a poster and being able to present the poster. I think it was also good to learn about networking. I just attended the graduate student and postdoc colloquium and learned about how important that is,” she said. Caperton plans to attend graduate school after college. “I was at a meeting when I met the people in the labs I wanted to join for grad school,” said Dr. Fantegrossi. “It was very important for my applications.” Dr. Fantegrossi believes that the relationships gained at national meetings are especially valuable for undergraduates, and he makes sure his students attend the various networking sessions available at Experimental Biology.
Anna Scandinaro is a senior Biochemistry student from West Virginia University studying in the lab of Dr. Rae Matsumoto, and attending a national meeting for the first time. “It’s great to be a part of something like this where you can practice speaking in front of other people. That experience is wonderful and it’s going to help in any aspect of my life. I really enjoy people questioning me. It’s just great to be here with people from all over,” she said. Her graduate advisor Linda Nguyen attended the meeting with Scandinaro, and also supports undergraduate attendance at these meetings. “For undergrads it is daunting, it’s huge, if they don’t have someone already there guiding them through the meeting they might not be able to get out as much,” says Nguyen. “But I think the exposure to these various fields of science is a good experience.”
Sophomore Natalie Arabian participated in SURF research in the lab of Dr. Daryl Davies at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy and presented her findings at the Student/Postdoc Best Abstract Competition, where she won the undergraduate award for Drug Discovery and Development. She plans to pursue a PhD following her undergraduate degree. “I definitely think it’s really important for undergrads to come to meetings and I think it’s really important for undergrads to know or at least have a good idea about what they want to study before they go to grad school,” she commented.
Another participant of the ASPET Student/Postdoc Best Abstract Competition was Emily Warner, a junior majoring in Neuroscience at the University of New England. She presented data from her research with Dr. Glenn Stevenson of the Department of Behavioral Pharmacology. “I definitely want to look for things that are going to gear our research in the future to look at where we are going to go next,” she said. Dr. Stevenson agreed with her thoughts, adding that Warner’s high involvement in research at his lab makes a meeting like this a much more fulfilling experience. “The utility of the meeting depends on the degree of immersion they get in the lab. If they are really immersed in the lab setting then I think this meeting might have some meaning for them,” he said. Dr. Stevenson also stated the importance of undergraduate attendance at national meetings for their future careers. “I’m all about getting them to the next level,” Dr. Stevenson commented. “And the best part is they take it seriously.”
Learn more about undergraduate research opportunities with ASPET here.