On the final day of the 2013 Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, Ashli Allen, a senior at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, stood smiling beside her poster and began to summarize her research to two scientist judges.
“Propranolol is a beta blocker that blocks the fight or flight response, so it decreases anxiety,” Allen said. “A previous study in the lab found it helped increase verbal fluency in people with autism. We wanted to see if its benefits extended to visuospatial fluency. Our question was, would the drug allow their minds to not become stressed out.”
“Ok, but I don’t think it’s a mind problem. It’s neurological,” one judge commented. “Right, would it reduce the neurological stress response,” Allen amended before continuing on to her methods and results.
After asking some questions about her methods and ideas for follow-up research, judge Charla Lambert gave Allen a second chance. “Why don’t you tell us your hypothesis again, and I’ll see if I got it all,” she said.
Lambert was one of 132 judges who evaluated almost 600 undergraduate and graduate students, including underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities, who presented research posters or gave oral presentations at the third ERN Conference, held in Washington, D.C. from 28 February to 2 March.
About 900 people from 174 colleges and universities, including 42 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) participated in the conference, which was hosted by AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR) and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resource Development. Representatives from 19 companies and 31 graduate schools also attended to recruit students for graduate schools, research fellowships and job opportunities. The program included sessions on preparing for graduate programs and how to write a good abstract, as well as inspirational talks from researchers, including one about the 100 Year Starship project, a U.S. initiative to make human space travel beyond the solar system possible in the next 100 years.
Two dozen judges were themselves alumni of fellowship programs for HBCU students or programs sponsored by SACNAS (the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science), said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS EHR programs. Others judges were AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows and professors or scientists exhibiting or participating in the conference.
“We are particularly interested in having some judges that are new, underrepresented minority Ph.D.s, who can serve as both judges and role models,” George said. “We want the students to see the possible jobs and types of research they can be involved in, and that scientists, engineers and mathematicians do have a life, partners and children.”
Marcus Jones, an assistant professor in Infectious Disease and Genomic Medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, is one of the HBCU fellowship alumni. He said conferences like ERN give students a chance to practice communicating, which they’ll need to do throughout their careers. “They get to learn an important skill: presenting their research and selling themselves,” Jones said. “Everyone should be able to give a 60-second speech to a millionaire about why they should fund your research.”
To earn a top score, presenters had to make eye contact and speak clearly while using visual aids to demonstrate a strong knowledge of their research projects. They also had to be consistently clear and logical, handle difficult questions well, and be able to discuss how their findings fit into a broader context.
Lambert is a SACNAS board member and a program manager in science and training at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. She studied genome sciences for her doctoral research, but as a judge, she evaluated genetics, biomedical engineering and biochemistry as well. Over three days, Lambert judged 26 research posters and presentations in those fields by undergraduates and graduate students.
After a quick lunch on Saturday, she and four other judges pulled out the sheets for their top-scoring students in the last session and compared notes.
One student got credit for answering questions well when a judge interrupted them, then getting back on track. Another student who couldn’t answer basic questions about her instrument set-up or research assumptions got dropped from contention.
One of the students chosen for an award impressed the judges because he had already started working on next steps based on his research findings. “He knew what the limitations were, and what he needed to do to follow up,” said Aleisha Dobbins, associate director of Policy, Learning and Development at BioMarin, a California biotechnology company. “He had really thought about that big picture. Based on that, I thought he was very good.”
The judges said they try to make the experience a positive, learning one for the students. “After I’m done judging, I make sure they get some feedback,” said Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in research and innovation at the National Science Foundation. She said she usually tells them to make eye contact and be engaging, and suggests ways to improve their posters.
By the final night of the conference, the suspense was over for the students. A total of 24 awards for oral presentations and 40 awards for poster presentations were given to 51 undergraduates and 13 graduate students across the 10 subject divisions.
Allen didn’t win an award, but she said the experience was useful and helped her focus on her plans to work toward a Ph.D. in physical therapy. “I did a lot of networking and met some amazing people who will be able to help me at the next level,” she said.