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Networking and Presentations Skills Emphasized at Undergraduate Research Conference
Afiya Fredericks, a junior psychology major at the University of the Virgin Islands, discusses her results showing that small, rather than large, monetary awards can improve learning.
The dessert course was just ending at a formal banquet, and the guests were settling in to listen to what appeared to be a predictable welcome speech. The dinner speaker, however, had other plans. She looked out over the room and issued an assignment: Introduce yourself to other people sitting at the table.
An uncomfortable silence followed, but it lasted only a moment. Soon the ballroom was buzzing as people reached across and between tables to make new connections and new friends. Though slightly awkward, it was a defining moment at a recent conference for students and faculty from historically black colleges and universities organized by AAAS for the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).
"It's not just about staying within your comfort zone, but stepping outside," said NSF program director Camille McKayle told the 700 students and faculty who attended the two-day conference in Washington, D.C.
In panel presentations, in poster sessions, and in informal discussions, students got the same message: To really learn, to get ahead and to make an impact, you have to break out and explore realms beyond your usual boundaries. Networking is critical. Internships are essential. Doing extra work can help to open new doors.
With concerns rising about the ability of the United States to maintain scientific and technological competitiveness with other countries, AAAS and others have argued that the nation must cultivate S&T expertise in groups and places often ignored in the past.
The AAAS and NSF 2007 National Research Conference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP), held 4-7 October, is a part of the effort to expand the U.S. STEM workforce by improving the quality of undergraduate education and research at HBCUs.
The HBCUs already play a critical role. Comprising a mere 3% of all U.S. institutions of higher learning, the 100-plus HBCUs graduate 22% of the nation's African Americans with undergraduate degrees, according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. About a third of African Americans receiving Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at HBCUs, as described in last fall's NSF report "U.S. Doctorates in the 20th Century."
The slightly awkward, but ultimately successful, networking exercise at the onset of the conference exemplified the event's aim to build career skills in its student attendees. "Networking is encouraged here, whereas other conferences just touch on it," said University of the Virgin Islands psychology major Afiya Fredericks, who presented her research at one of the three undergraduate poster sessions.
In such a welcoming yet rigorous environment, students giving oral presentations received both praise and constructive feedback from faculty and peers in the audience. For instance, a faculty member asked Cherie Ognibene, a senior at Langston University in Oklahoma who plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. in genetics, to clarify her research hypothesis during her presentation on glaucoma. Pointed questions on sampling methods and research assumptions put the well-prepared Brandon Carter, of Dillard University in New Orleans, La., in the hot seat during his presentation of his findings of airborne microbes in communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Both Ognibene and Carter were winners in the biological sciences category for the meeting's oral presentation competition. [See the full list of winners.]
For student Jamika Brown, an organic chemistry major at Norfolk State University in Virginia, networking and conferences keep her motivated to get a higher degree and to get a job. "People at HBCUs are often un-informed," said Brown, who is interested in developing ways to more efficiently produce substances such as chemotherapy drugs. "Many students are not even aware of the different summer internship opportunities and types of funding that are available to them."
Brown has gained additional experience through internships outside of her home university, as has chemical engineering major April Hollinger of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. Hollinger interned as a research and development engineer improving tampon applicators at Procter & Gamble. Her summer 2007 internship led to a job offer from P&G, although Hollinger is not sure she will accept it. "Sometimes it's not always about the money," said Hollinger, who wants to expand upon her research experiences before she begins graduate school.
A reality check of how to better prepare for graduate school often results from HBCU undergraduates doing internships and other research opportunities outside of their home universities. Ashanti Edwards, an educational program coordinator at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University, said that summer research projects allow participants to see the level of education required to work in a top notch laboratory.
"[Then] they go back to their home university and take an extra chemistry or calculus class to get prepared for graduate school," said Edwards, who was among over 60 exhibitors attending the conference to attract students to summer research programs and internships.
Emmanuel Mwangi, a chemistry major at Morgan State University, studies how dyes can be used in biological applications such as pregnancy detection and blood sugar measurements.
Edwards noted that students' passion for research drives their motivation to do extra work. For chemistry major Emmanuel Mwangi, fuel for late nights at the lab comes from his passion for his work on improving dyes that can be used in such applications as measuring blood sugar levels and detecting pregnancy. A conversation about science with a friend who happened to be a graduate student prompted Mwangi to begin lab research last spring. Since then, Mwangi's interest in research has flourished and has prompted him to seek a graduate degree in chemistry after he graduates from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.,
Peer mentors like Mwangi's friend are becoming an increasingly important tool for attracting and retaining students into STEM fields. According to a NSF 2000 report, minority students were more enthusiastic about peer mentoring as opposed to faculty mentoring, particularly within their first two years of undergraduate education. Students could relate better to their peer mentor and felt more at ease discussing personal problems.
When organizing the 2007 HBCU-UP conference, AAAS Deputy Director of Education and Human Resources Yolanda George made a point to include sessions that put the spotlight on young scientists. For instance, one session was an informal talk show-like panel featuring young scientists discussing how they achieve a work-life balance, a topic which George says undergraduate minorities seldom hear about from their faculty mentors. "It's important for them to see people who have a lifestyle as well as a career in science," George said.
Strong support systems from a variety of sources including mentors can be all the difference for success. Wanda Ward, a deputy assistant director at NSF, credits her family and her church for nurturing her toward higher education even if it was not always clear how she would obtain it. Ward also recognized that having a critical mass of peers at every career level as important for nurturing individuals toward success, even when things go wrong.
Plenary speaker and Norfolk State University president Carolyn Meyers offered additional encouragement for minorities who might mistakenly think that they do not fit in the STEM workforce. Meyers, who has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, said she was never sure whether sexism or racism caused people in her field to treat her differently. Not that she let the differential treatment bother or dissuade her.
"I would think that's their problem and not mine, and I would just do my work," said Meyers, during her speech at the conference. "You determine how you're going to react to the 'isms' in the world that are alive and well."
Funded by a $975,000 NSF grant, AAAS organized the 2007 HBCU-UP research conference and will organize similar events in 2008 and 2009. Providing valuable professional experiences with practical applications is the goal of these meetings, which are coordinated by the AAAS Education and Human Resources department under the direction of Shirley Malcom.
31 October 2007