From June 17-19 the Biophysical Society’s Summer Program in Biophysics hosted its annual Alumni Reunion Weekend in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Previous program participants joined the current class for a fun and informative weekend that included a BBQ reception, scientific presentations from program alumni, career talks and panels featuring a diverse group of visiting scientists, as well as poster presentations by students from the current class. Students, alumni, and professors had a chance to catch up, network, and even make a few new friends over the course of the weekend. Current students received feedback on their posters and guidance on navigating their careers, along with the opportunity to ask questions on a variety of topics. In this blog, we will hear from current BPS Summer Program participant, Monica Cortez, on her thoughts about the reunion weekend.
The Biophysical Society’s 2016 Summer Program Alumni Reunion Weekend was my first experience participating in an event where I had the opportunity to present my research. The weekend’s poster session went well and I was able to discuss my research with alumni, current students, program staff, and visiting scientists. During the session, one scientist approached me with a mini experiment she was conducting on students during the poster session: I was dealt the task of explaining my project to her as if she were a time traveler from the 1800s. At first I was nervous about the approach to explaining my project in an elementary way, but much to my surprise, I quickly uncovered my talent for science communication. As a scientist, it is important to be able to communicate your research to anyone ranging from the general public to the most knowledgeable scientists. There was a lot of fun to be had explaining my project in breaking it down to the bare bones of it, the most fundamental concepts going into the big picture of the research. I realized then that my ability to simplify the explanation of my project meant my mentor had done an excellent job in helping me understand my project.
As the poster session proceeded, groups would rotate, and some people would linger a little longer if something caught their interest or if they needed further clarification about the project. This brought me to my next challenge, the challenge of defending previous work done on the project; work done by other researchers collaborating on the project. This means that I was asked questions about the research that I had not asked myself previously. One particular question involved a technique I had not done previously. My first time doing the technique was less than 24 hours before the question was asked. This was a frustrating moment during the poster session. The conversation about a tiny but very important detail to the project felt like it went on for hours. As my first poster session and first experience presenting my “explanation of research” experience, I felt targeted by the question, but I walked away from it with a new understanding. This understanding is that you will be asked questions you did not think about, and you will have to answer truthfully that you do not know the answer to their question. It is not a matter of being targeted, rather it is a matter of realizing research is about answering questions no one knows the answer to.
On the concluding day of the weekend, Summer Program alumni presented their own research and took part in a career panel. This day, program alum, Dr. Yadilette Rivera-Colón provided feedback about the “time traveler” experiment she conducted and went on to explain her background and her path to get where she is today. Congratulations to her because she announced her next career move: an associate professor position! It was amazing to sit amongst a crowd seeing one of our very own alumni finally serving in academia as a professor. Another alum spoke on getting NSF grants and provided tips on how to apply. There were also alumni who spoke on taking steps towards other career opportunities outside of academia. I felt that this was a good choice of topic and beneficial to expose the current Biophysical Society’s Summer Program students to alternative career choices. The career panel was also beneficial in that it led to interesting discussions. One particular point I feel is important to mention is the commonality among the scientists on the panel: even though their paths were very different, they all overcame potential roadblocks encountered by building an excellent support system. One very emotional topic involved the journey to getting a PhD; many panelists felt a lack of excitement and emotional support from their advisors when passing their candidacy, being given a small “congratulations” and a “so what’s next for experiments?”. I was taken aback by this because I’ve always surrounded myself in a good network of people who get excited over my accomplishments no matter how big or small they are. This emotional experience was important for the summer students to witness, highlighting how a strong support system and communication skills play a huge part in success. Communication of your work as a scientist is important, but more importantly the communication between you and your advisor/boss is even more important. Once the emotional needs of the mentee are efficiently communicated to the mentor, their relationship can strengthen. Your mentor/mentee relationship is an important part to succeeding in graduate school and beyond. Several alumni candidly discussed how not meeting these emotional needs can lead to crippling depression during graduate school, and encouraged current students to utilize the Program’s alumni network as a source of ongoing support throughout their careers.
The weekend concluded differently than I had expected but overall I wouldn’t have changed anything about this experience. The summer students met people from different career paths and learned how to communicate. Being a part of this summer program feels like a privilege. Not only was I blessed with an advisor who helped me accomplish this part of my career journey, but I am blessed to be working on a project with an excellent mentor here at UNC who is extremely supportive as well. This weekend showed me that I also have a network of alumni from the Biophysical Society’s Summer Research program; an important connection between previous students and the current students has been established, and we are so lucky to have met them all.
– Monica K Cortez, Biophysical Society Summer Research Program Fellow