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Students Find Abundant Advice and Inspiration at Emerging Researchers National Conference

ATLANTA, Georgia—Trey Saddler, an undergraduate at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, came to present his work on mercury levels in women on the Flathead Indian Reservation—and to network with peers and potential mentors.

Leighann Black, a senior majoring in biochemistry at Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, shared findings from a research project on quality sensors for poultry—and then set her sights on learning about graduate programs and finding a summer job.


Jorlys Alvarado-Morales, from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, at the Friday afternoon Poster Presentation Session | Photos by Elena Conis

Jorlys Alvarado, a fifth-year industrial engineering major at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, said that although she’s presented her research on cancer biomarkers at other conferences, none compares to the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference when it comes to keeping her inspired about her work.


“This is the best conference, because you get so much feedback from judges and other people,” she said. ”They encourage me to keep going, and apply my knowledge.”

Saddler, Black, and Alvarado were among more than 500 students who participated in the 2012 ERN Conference in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), sponsored by AAAS Education and Human Resources programs and the National Science Foundation Division of Human Resource Development (HRD).

The conference is primarily for undergraduate and graduate students in NSF-HRD funded programs, including the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate; Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program; Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation; Research in Disabilities Education; the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program; and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. More than 850 participants attended the conference in downtown Atlanta from 23-25 February.

The students at the conference—undergraduates and graduate students from 133 different colleges and universities—shared the fruits of their scientific research projects, met peers from across the country, and attended workshops on getting ahead in their careers.

They also met with countless scientific mentors spoke with students one-on-one at networking dinners, judged student presentations, and gave inspirational speeches.

For Zhao Zhang, a master’s student in computer science at Texas Southern University, the chance to meet so many distinguished scientists was a highlight of the conference. It was invaluable to hear not only about their work, he said, but also “their philosophy and attitude toward life.”

But the ERN conference was about much more than networking, said Claudia Rankins, program officer for the National Science Foundation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program. In addition to rousing welcome speeches and countless scientific sessions, the conference program was packed with workshops on applying to graduate school, writing abstracts, exploring careers beyond academia, and other important topics.

Frank Pinto (left) and Eric Glover, both of Virginia State University, at the Friday afternoon Poster Presentation Session

“It’s a holistic approach to getting to the next level,” Rankins said.

For many students, the conference was also a way to figure out what that next level might be.

“It really opened my mind to graduate school and Ph.D programs,” said Frank Pinto, a senior majoring in computer engineering at Virginia State University.

Pinto also said he valued the extensive feedback he received on the research he presented with classmate Eric Glover, who is also a senior computer engineering major. Pinto and Glover, recipients of a Dwight Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Transportation, presented findings from a project in which they used geographic information systems tools to analyze the pros and cons of locations for new grocery stores in the Richmond/Petersburg area of Virginia.

Pinto and Glover said they received the best suggestions for improving their work from the many judges who reviewed their poster presentation.

Judges voted on the best oral and poster presentations, and winners were announced on the final night of the conference.

“It allows students a chance to get rewarded for all of their hard work,” said Kenneth Boutte Sr., a dean at Xavier University of Louisiana and a member of the ERN advisory board who served as one of this year’s judges.

Delia Valles-Rosales, New Mexico State University (left) and Esther Morales-Vega, Michigan State University, at the Graduate Student Career Networking Dinner

Judge Delia Valles-Rosales, associate professor of industrial engineering at New Mexico State University and an ERN advisory board member, said that the quality of the student research presentations was particularly impressive this year.

“The students have a grasp of big picture issues related to the research, not only the narrow details,” she said. “They understand the application of their data, the impact of their research.”

The ERN conference aims to improve students’ ability to communicate in scientific fields and help prepare them for successful scientific careers. And one of the best ways to prepare students for success in graduate school in the sciences is to give them chances to conduct and present research as undergraduates, noted Rosario Gerhardt, professor of materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech, in her welcome remarks at the conference opening.

Such opportunities may also help draw students to STEM majors and lure them into scientific careers—which is a particularly pressing issue in 2012. On 7 February, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology announced that for the United States to remain competitive in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the country must increase its number of STEM graduates by 1 million over the next decade—a 34% increase over the current number of STEM graduates.

“We can reach that 1 million with improved retention in STEM majors,” said Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources.

One way to hold on to those majors? Give them a chance to feel invested in their work and connect with mentors who inspire them to keep going.

In his plenary speech on the opening night of the conference, Larry Pileggi, Tanoto Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, offered exactly that kind of inspiration. He urged students to embrace being “outliers”—people who aren’t afraid to be different, and who aren’t daunted by the time, effort, and determination it takes to excel at what they do.

“You all should really know that you are in the right place at the right time with STEM,” said Pileggi. “AAAS and NSF are exposing you to outlier opportunities. It’s up to you to take them.”

And that’s exactly what students did, as they connected with potential employers and graduate schools in the exhibit hall, met new mentors at the networking dinner, and questioned and complimented each other’s work at the many poster and oral presentation sessions.

Maria Meza-Lopez, a Rice University Ph.D student in ecology, said she came to ERN to present her work on invasive snails in Texas wetlands, meet peers, and find post-graduate opportunities. But she reflected that talks like Pileggi’s were a reminder of the bigger picture, too.

“It was motivational,” she said. “He talked about being passionate, being an individual rather than conforming to what others want you to be.”

Jorlys Alvarado agreed, adding that one of her favorite things about the conference was something she heard not just from Pileggi, but from one speaker after another. “They say, ‘I’m awesome, and you can be like me.’’


Learn more about the Emerging Researchers Network and see materials from the recent conference.