Conference Provides Inspiration and Opportunity for Young STEM Researchers

Manu Platt | Sarah Zielinski

In a plenary speech that earned him a standing ovation at a Washington D.C. conference, a scientist who studies HIV/AIDS and sickle cell disease challenged hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students to think about what kind of impact they would like to have in their lives and research, and to work hard to achieve that impact.

"We all like the success, but there's always lots of hard, punishing work that goes into the greatest success stories we've seen," said Manu Platt, an assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta.

Platt spoke at the 21 February awards banquet for the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM, where he spoke after the scheduled speaker, Juan Gilbert of the University of Florida, was unable to attend due to the bad weather.

More than 1,000 people from 240 colleges and universities attended the three-day annual conference, which was hosted by AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Human Resource Development within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The ERN conference provides an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields to enhance their science communication skills through poster and oral presentations judged by 140 scientists and engineers. Many of these judges are alumni of the David and Lucile Packard HBCU Graduate Scholars Program, the SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute, the L'Oréal For Women in Science postdoctoral fellows program, and the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program.

"What we have tried to do is to provide a safe space for a presentation," said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs. "This is a wonderful entrée into being able to see yourself as part of the scientific community."

Many students enjoyed being able to present data from their scientific endeavors in a friendly environment. "I wanted to practice my presenting skills," said Hannah Gousse of the University of Connecticut, who studied the effect of deer management on forest in an Alabama state park. "For me, the most important thing is being able to present my data well and to be able to communicate to people in a way that is understandable and exciting and interesting."

Hannah Gousse (above) and Korey Smith | Sarah Zielinski

The oral and poster presentations are the core of the conference, but the attendees also found value in ERN's other offerings, such as opportunities for networking, plenary talks by science leaders, and workshops on topics such as where to find funding for school.

Korey Smith, a student at North Carolina's Johnson C. Smith University (one of the nation's 104 historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs), said that presenting his research on working memory and neural activity in rhesus macaques was just one reason to attend ERN. He had looked forward to getting to know other students and their research and networking with graduate programs.

Many of the students attending ERN are drawn from programs funded by NSF's Division of Human Resources Development, which provides several opportunities for underrepresented minorities, women, and people with disabilities to pursue research and education in STEM fields. The result is a conference that is more diverse than the average science meeting.

The plenary speakers were another highlight of the meeting. Students praised, for instance, Ainissa Ramirez, journalist and former Yale engineering professor, for her inspiring speech on 19 February in which she entreated the attendees to find and pursue their passions.

Platt, the conference's final plenary speaker, continued the inspirational messages and provided a model for the students at the conference. Like many of them, Platt got his start in scientific research as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta. When he was a senior, Platt began working with Robert Nerem at the Georgia Tech & Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissue (GTEC). That opportunity pushed him to pursue a Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and eventually into his current research career at Georgia Tech and Emory University in a joint department of Biomedical Engineering.

"I had a number of mentors along the way," Platt said. "They didn't all look like me or share my experiences, but they all had something to offer."

Platt has focused his research on two diseases affecting African nations and the African-American community in the United States — sickle cell disease and HIV/AIDS — both of which need more attention. For instance, sickle cell disease affects 90,000 to 100,000 Americans with African and Mediterranean ancestry, but there is only one drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat the disease. "A lot of people think it's cured," he noted, but "clearly there's a need for people who have the skillset and care to join this field."

Platt's work on HIV/AIDS has taken him to South Africa and Ethiopia and opened his eyes to the need for doctors and scientists to become activists at times. He challenged the conference's attendees to take their own research and "think globally, then act locally." But then, he said, "act globally because there are things we can take from here to the rest of the world."