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A Celebration of Undergraduate Research

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Nelson Mandela

To the left, Nelson Mandela. To the right, the Yakima watershed. Farther down, macaque monkeys. At the Tenth Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, held May 18, intriguing research topics could be found in every direction. 

The Undergraduate Research Symposium is a forum for UW students to present their research through posters or oral presentations. Introduced in 1997 as a small gathering with about 70 presenters, it has grown substantially each year. In 2007, 630 students participated, filling every hallway, classroom, and other public space in Mary Gates Hall. Some performance-based research was presented in Meany Hall.

“The symposium was created as a way to provide a culminating event for students active in research,” says Janice DeCosmo, director of the Undergraduate Research Program, which organizes the event. “It is an opportunity to show what they’ve done and provides a bit of accountability.”

Most students who present at the symposium participate in faculty research or have faculty mentors providing guidance. This year, nearly 500 faculty mentors were involved.

“It’s time consuming, but I enjoy interacting with students one on one,” 
says faculty mentor Lucy Jarosz, associate professor of geography. Professor of Anthropology Stevan Harrell adds, “I swell with pride when my students present at the symposium—more than when something of mine gets published, because that’s a 
lot easier for me by now.”


A Capstone Experience

The Undergraduate Research Symposium is the main showcase for undergraduate research at the UW, but it is not the only event for budding researchers. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Geography, Psychology, and Biology organize smaller symposia for undergraduate researchers. And the Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities, organized by the Undergraduate Research Program in collaboration with the Simpson Center for the Humanities, culminates with a poster session. 

Psychology plans a poster session each year, at which its honors students present their research. Biology’s symposium is designed to highlight undergraduate research funded through a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant, but all biology students are invited to participate. HHMI students work full-time in faculty laboratories during the summer, so the symposium is scheduled for autumn quarter, when students are likely to have results to present.

“This way, students can participate in our symposium and the larger UW symposium, and they will have different stories each time,” says Barbara Wakimoto, professor of biology. “We also see this as an opportunity to introduce new biology students to research opportunities. It becomes a recruiting device.”

Geography holds its research symposium just prior to graduation, regarding it as a capstone experience. Many participants present work completed in a project-based capstone course, although geography honors students present individual research as well.

“It’s a joy to watch the students at our symposium and see how far they’ve come since they joined the major,” says Rick Roth, Geography’s adviser. “They blow the faculty away. They’ve really become geographers. Part of the reason we do this is to help the students realize how far they’ve come. It’s an important moment for both the students and faculty.”


Different Presentations, Different Challenges

Symposia can include poster sessions or oral presentations or both. At the 2007 Undergraduate Research Symposium, 350 posters prepared by individuals or teams were on display and 200 students gave oral presentations in lecture rooms throughout the building. 

Posters provide basic information about a student's research, often leading to longer conversations about the work.

Posters provide basic information about a student's research, often leading to longer conversations about the work. Media credit: David Ryder

Posters and oral presentations offer different challenges. Students presenting posters must describe their research as concisely as possible through words and images, including enough information to interest viewers without overwhelming them. “You have to distill the story of your research,” says DeCosmo. “The viewer should be able to understand the research if you’re not there. If you are there, it’s a jumping off point to talking about your research in more detail.”

Oral presentations also require distilling a large amount of information, with students allotted a mere ten minutes (plus five minutes for questions) to describe their work. Then there’s the added pressure of speaking to an audience while juggling notes and clicking through a Power Point presentation. For some students, this is an intimidating prospect. 

Many students seek guidance from faculty mentors as they prepare for the symposium. The Undergraduate Research Program also offers workshops on making posters and creating Power Point presentations. In the weeks preceding the event, practice sessions are available for students giving oral presentations.

“If you’ve never seen anybody sweat bullets, come to a practice session,” says DeCosmo with a laugh. “I’ve seen students whose shirts are literally soaked, students who are almost unable to talk at the practice session, and then they are able to give a poised presentation at the symposium. It’s inspirational.”

While students making oral presentations may sweat bullets, those presenting posters also need to speak engagingly about their research. They stand by their poster for much of the afternoon, offering information to a parade of visitors. “People will bring whatever their background is to your poster session, so every conversation is different,” says DeCosmo. “As a result, you can realize something new about your work. There’s something very exciting about the surprises.”


Skills for a Lifetime

For UW sophomore Pavan Vaswani, a biochemistry and computer science major, those surprises are the best part of the symposium. Vaswani’s research aims to measure brain pressure using non-invasive ultrasound as an alternative to current invasive techniques. Last year he presented a poster about his research; this year DeCosmo encouraged him to give an oral presentation. He was hesitant—not because of nerves but because he had such fun talking with people during last year’s poster session.

Visitors packed Mary Gates Hall during the Undergraduate Research Symposium in May 2007.

Visitors packed Mary Gates Hall during the Undergraduate Research Symposium in May 2007.  Media credit: Kyla Lackie

“I was kind of shaking for the first two or three people, but then I got a sense of which analogies were working and which weren’t,” says Vaswani. “I got to see a lot of people, hear a lot of ideas, and cater how I talked about the project to their interest and knowledge level. Plus, with a poster you get a lot of exposure.”

Vaswani was so keen on repeating the poster experience that he requested permission to present a poster as part of a group project in addition to his oral presentation. “My friends thought I was crazy,” says Vaswani. “They said, ‘You want to do both?’ I said, “Yeah, I enjoy this. This is what I do for fun.”

Probably not all students would describe a day of public speaking as fun, but most would agree that the symposium provides invaluable experience. For starters, says DeCosmo, they will never be quite as nervous when they give a speech again. But more important, they learn how to convey complex information in a way that others can understand. That is a skill that translates to any future career.

Roth agrees. In job interviews, students who have participated in a research symposium “are miles ahead of other applicants who can only talk about their courses,” he says. “They actually sound like insiders who have already encountered some of the problems you would face on the job. For employers, that is impressive.”

Two months after the 2007 Undergraduate Research Symposium, DeCosmo is already planning next year’s event. The first item on her to-do list? Finding a way to accommodate more students. “I think we used every inch of Mary Gates Hall this year and things were still crowded,” says DeCosmo. Remembering the fledging event held ten years ago, she has to smile. After ten years, the Undergraduate Research Symposium is definitely all grown up.