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Conference Highlights Innovative Work of Emerging Researchers

Four panelists on stage at the ERN conference
Sanna Gaspard, Shaun Kane, Captain Barrington Irving and Livia Eberlin discuss the role of inspiration and innovation in STEM. | Colella Digital

Communicating the value of their work, cultivating personal interests and forging new connections pave the road for emerging researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to thrive in degree programs and the global STEM workforce, said speakers at an annual conference for undergraduate and graduate students in STEM.

The Emerging Researchers National Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (ERN), hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation’s Division of Human Resource Development, provides STEM students, especially underrepresented students such as African Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, American Indians, Alaska Natives and those with disabilities, opportunities to hone critical skills necessary to advance their scientific careers.

Now in its ninth year, the annual conference held in February in Washington, D.C., underscored “the breadth and depth of areas that your STEM background can be applied to, to solve some very complex and challenging real-world problems,” Iris R. Wagstaff, a AAAS STEM program director and program lead for the ERN Conference, said to participants.

More than 1,300 participants attended the conference, most students who represented more than 250 colleges and universities, including 51 historically black colleges and universities.

“I am elated to see how this conference has grown into what it is today,” said Claudia Rankins, program director of the NSF Directorate of Education and Human Resources, who has been involved in the conference since its beginnings nearly a decade ago.

In addition to four plenaries, professional development sessions and an educational and career fair, the conference offered students an opportunity to highlight their work and communicate its value before a judging panel of STEM professionals. The competition attracted 648 undergraduate and graduate students, who delivered oral and poster presentations featuring their research.

Katherine Furman, an undergraduate neuroscience major at New York University, was presented the top prize in a student video competition that drew work from around the country for “How Do Mothers Learn to Respond to their Child’s Cry?

Two students present their HBCU Maker & Innovation Showcase entry
Central State University students won the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase with their Fooderator. | Colella Digital

For the second year, teams of college students and faculty members representing historically black colleges and universities featured innovative solutions to problems related to United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals. Entries in the HBCU Making & Innovation Showcase included a water filtration system and a 3D-printed neuro-prosthetic limb. Students from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, won the contest with the Fooderator, a hydroponic gardening system to address food insecurity.

During a panel on the role of innovation in STEM, participants recommended that ERN attendees pull from their own interests as inspiration for exploring innovative and novel ways to leverage their scientific knowledge. “Combining science and engineering with your own personal passions – whether that’s medicine, aviation or helping other people with disabilities have better interactions with the environment around them – you can go on to amazing things,” said Sanna Gaspard, the panel moderator and the founder of medical device companies Rubitection and TLneoCare LLC.

Panelist Livia Eberlin, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin, for instance, harnessed the power of mass spectrometry in a new way. She developed the MasSpec Pen, a 3D-printed tool that uses mass spectrometry to measure molecules in real time, allowing surgeons to more quickly and accurately detect the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue. Eberlin, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2018, said that witnessing the use of the MasSpec Pen during a thyroid cancer surgery was a highlight of her career.

Eberlin, a former AAAS L’Oréal for Women in Science fellow and AAAS Marion Milligan Mason awardee, challenged conference attendees to consider what most animates them and find ways to use their skills to make a difference in that area. She urged them to consider: “How can you adapt the tools that you use today in your labs to make an impact on society?”

Panelist Captain Barrington Irving, who has set two world records as the youngest person and the first black pilot to fly solo around the world, emphasized to conference attendees the importance of calculated risks; if the timing is right, take a risk, he said.

Shaun Kane, associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, also offered advice to ERN attendees: “Just do the work that’s important that you want to do.” Kane works on ability-based design, which, rather than requiring its user to adapt to the technology, allows the technology to adapt to the user’s abilities – something that is particularly useful to people with disabilities.

“Find out what you get excited about,” said Isa Watson, CEO and co-founder of software company Squad, as part of a panel of scientists and engineers who had attended ERN as students. To make the most of their ERN experience, Watson called on students to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about different areas of STEM. Recounting her own experiences as a student presenting work in poster sessions, Watson said, “I felt very inspired.”

Alumni of ERN also stressed the importance of connecting with others in STEM – making contacts is a lesson that extends long past the end of the conference.

After all, a future adviser for a master’s, Ph.D. or postdoc program may be in attendance, or a fellow student presenting work nearby may serve as a connection, said Omar Alberto Movil-Cabrera, an associate professor in chemical engineering at Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico.

Kaaba White, an engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command, said “Everything is about networking.”

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Andrea Korte