Symposium highlights student involvement in research projects

Sunday, April 7, 2019 - 12:39pm

LSA junior Anati Alyaa Binti Azhar presents at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemistry Atrium on Friday.

LSA junior Anati Alyaa Binti Azhar presents at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Chemistry Atrium on Friday. Buy this photo
Cameron Hunt/Daily

The first Undergraduate Research Symposium, organized entirely by undergraduates, was held Friday in the Chemistry Building Atrium to showcase students’ multidisciplinary research projects.

About 150 students from over 40 academic departments presented their research to more than 100 graduate and postdoctoral judges. Top presenters were given one of 10 $500 awards funding travel for future conferences.

LSA junior Jenna Manske, a member of the nine-person committee that founded the symposium, said the idea came to their group when they realized there was not a low-pressure space on campus for undergraduate students in any department to display their research.

“We were just sitting down one day and we thought there isn’t really a place for undergraduate students at any stage of their research to present that’s campus-wide and multidisciplinary,” Menske said. “So we were like, ‘You know what? We’re going to make a symposium.’”

The group began contacting academic departments and students to gauge interest for the symposium.

“The Honors Program was the first entity to say, ‘Yes, we’re willing to contribute $1,000,’” Menske said. “And from there we were like, okay this can actually happen. So we started asking other departments and sending out forms to get people to register for the symposium. We got students and we emailed Rackham and got judges, and we were able to get more money and now we can offer 10 $500 travel awards to the top presenters — which is crazy — and fully fund the symposium.”

LSA senior Nicole Smith found out about the symposium from an email sent by the Anthropology Department. Her research, which started around two years ago with Jason De Léon, assistant professor of anthropology and director of undergraduate studies, focuses on the materiality and memories of child migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Both the archaeology and the memories of this period are very fragmented, and memories fade over time,” Smith said. “Archaeology is always changing, decomposing as it is exposed to the environmental conditions of the desert. So by using these two things, I try to fill in those gaps and to produce a more holistic narrative about what these children are actually experiencing.”

Smith entered the symposium to share her findings with peers and get experience before presenting at the upcoming Society for American Archaeology Annual Meeting. She said she participated in a professional conference earlier in the year, but appreciates the student atmosphere of the URS.

“I presented this research at a professional conference in the fall, and that’s really awesome to get that experience,” Smith said. “But I think that as a student, I want to share this with students, and I think this symposium is great for that. But also just in terms of professional development, you know it gives you practice in talking about what you’re researching, gives you an opportunity to present in an accessible way.”

Engineering senior Jiayu Chen presented research she had conducted with the U-M Transportation Research Institute under Alex Cao, analyst and programmer for the Center for the Management of Information for Safe and Sustainable Transportation, and Robert Hampshire, assistant research professor at UMTRI. Using her data science background, Chen created a user-friendly map that displayed the risk level of accidents between pedestrians and bicyclists. By sharing her research, Chen hoped to help people learn more about the risks of such accidents in their areas.

“It’s not just important in terms of research, but (also) if you want to find out more about Ann Arbor, perhaps if you want to look at what are some areas where lots of accidents are happening,” Chen said.

Chen appreciated that the symposium was dedicated to showcasing research conducted specifically by undergraduates, and noted the University has helped provide research opportunities to many of its students.

“Some labs that I know about, I guess they’re more comprised of grad students or Ph.D. students,” she said. “I think it’s certainly nice in the way Michigan has provided lots of opportunities for undergrads to get involved with research. Like I’ve done two other research projects before and I think I’ve learned a lot. It’s nice for us to know what other people are working on and that there are other undergrads working on super cool research.”

Yujia Pan, symposium judge and Rackham student, was particularly excited about the diversity of projects and the impact students hoped their research would have. Pan said it was beneficial for undergraduate students to have an opportunity early on to showcase their research.

“I definitely hope that they get experience presenting,” Pan said. “It’s not an easy skill to acquire. I also hope that they feel excited about communicating their research and see that there’s a very receptive audience here at Michigan that’s excited about what they’re doing and wishing for their success.”

For LSA senior Ammar Ibrahim, the presentation opportunity was a highlight of the symposium. Ibrahim conducts research with the Charles McCrory Group, a lab led by Charles C. L. McCrory, an assistant professor of Chemistry. The group develops technologies that enable and support the study of electrochemical reactions for environmental research.

Ibrahim said McCrory encouraged him to attend the symposium because Ibrahim does not often get to present to audiences outside the Chemistry Department.

“My P.I. was like, ‘You should present your research. You don’t get the opportunity too often to tell people about what you’re doing, especially outside the chemistry department,’” Ibrahim said. “I’m going to graduate school in the fall and I’m sure I’m going to be running into a lot of things like this. This will be great practice for that. I’m just trying to get as much of a taste of graduate life as I can.”

According to Manske, the key benefits of the symposium are its accessibility and ability to expose students to other research on campus.

“The goal is for undergraduates to get experience presenting their own research as well as get exposure to other research,” Manske said. “We are to our knowledge the only multidisciplinary research symposium that anyone can present at regardless of what they’re affiliated with.”

LSA senior Sara Alektiar, a member of the URS committee, hopes to see the symposium continue annually.

“It’s run by undergrads,” Alektiar said. “We have a bunch of different departments helping us out providing supplies or providing financial support, but the people running the event are undergrads and we would love it to stay that way.”