Dear Molly Cule: Should I Bring Undergrads to the Annual Meeting?

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

Q:  I teach undergraduate students who have not yet decided on their career track. Is it worth bringing them to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting?

Undergraduate research is often the defining experience that leads students to consider going on to obtain graduate degrees.  Incorporating undergraduate students in research efforts can be a very effective means of retaining students in the sciences and working to increase the number of underrepresented students going on to achieve advanced degrees.  Getting students involved in research as early as their freshman year can provide continuity for faculty at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs), as well. These students ultimately provide the research expertise that increases both the number and quality of a lab’s publications, allowing faculty to maintain externally funded research.

Attending meetings and preparing posters and presentations are important experiences for undergraduates. Many faculty who incorporate undergraduates in research send them to regional, local, or undergraduate conferences as a means of allowing them to present their work in a friendly environment, gain confidence, and develop communication skills. Ultimately, the goal of attending these smaller meetings is to prepare the students so that they feel confident in presenting at a large national meeting and are better prepared to interact with experts in their field.

In previous years, I took students to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting in their senior year, after they had presented at a smaller conference.  In recent years, I have realized that it may be more beneficial for a student to attend the Biophysical Society meeting during their junior year before they submit applications for graduate or medical school. Last year, I was grateful that my NSF funding allowed me to take three participants to the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting, a sophomore, a junior, and a postbaccalaureate researcher, the last of whom had attended the 2013 Meeting as well.  Each of these participants returned with a renewed vigor and excitement for research and biophysics.  The exposure to the broad range of topics and personal interactions really solidified their research interests and influenced their postgraduate plans.  Exposing third-year undergraduate students to a broad range of biophysics and introducing them to graduate faculty impacts their career choices.  This experience can be invaluable in their decisions on whether they should apply to graduate school and what schools might best suit their interests.

There are several events at the Annual Meeting that are especially useful for undergraduate students, including the Graduate & Postdoc Institution Fair, the Undergraduate Student Breakfast, which provides networking opportunities and career advice, and the Undergraduate Mixer and Poster Fest, a chance for undergraduates to practice their poster presentations and receive feedback before the main poster sessions.

Starting students in research very early in their undergraduate careers has multiple benefits that include retention in the sciences, advanced research experience, increased probability of publications, and preparation to attend the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting.  As a professor, I encourage you to bring your students to the Annual Meeting, especially during their junior year. As a Society, we should work on increasing the number of college juniors attending our conferences; it may help increase students’ interest in graduate school in biophysics and lead to a more diverse population in the next generation of scientists.

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