Professional Development

Preparing undergrads for conferences

Courtney Chandler
March 17, 2023

In my last column, I talked about making the most of scientific conferences as an undergrad. Two undergrads who had been to conferences talked about what they gained from the experience and also gave tips on how to prepare.

This week, I am sticking with the same theme, but from a different perspective. Instead of talking with undergrad students, I spoke with Jeremy Johnson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Butler University. Johnson mentors undergraduate students in his lab and has also served on ASBMB’s undergraduate poster competition committee for the past three years.

Jeremy Johnson

Butler University is a primarily undergraduate institution, and Johnson has a lot of experience with mentoring undergrads in the research lab and preparing them for conferences. He said he thinks the conference experience is extremely valuable to expand students’ exposure to the scientific community.

“(Butler) has an active research community, but it doesn’t cover all topics present in modern science and doesn’t fully capture the modern collaborative approach to taking on complex problems,” Johnson said. “You can only get that at a conference.”

Beyond attending, Johnson said he thinks presenting a poster or talk, especially during a judged session, is a great opportunity to receive feedback and grow scientifically. He said that when he brings his students to large conferences with an undergraduate poster session, there are often attendees walking around giving his undergraduate students a figurative pat on the back, without giving them much feedback or evaluation.

“I like judged sessions because the students are treated like scientists and evaluated based on the scientific merit of what they’ve done,” Johnson said. “After this experience where they were challenged to think critically about their projects, they normally have new ideas about how to approach or continue their research.”

Preparing students for judgment

So, if you’re an undergraduate mentor, how do you prepare your students for a judged session? Johnson said his approach has changed over time. He used to sit down with the students and the conference booklet and describe the types of lecture sessions and how they may vary in terms of size or content. He still walks through this with his students, but now uses the conference website or app, which normally includes additional details like itineraries and venue maps.

In addition to highlighting the research talks and seminars, Johnson looks at the available workshops with his students. He encourages students interested in graduate school or undecided about their career goals to attend career workshops, to talk with school representatives at the conference, and to make sure they have their résumé and research project elevator talk prepared. For students focused on pre-health careers, he highlights the pre-health opportunities that would still be of interested to their long-term career goals.

To prepare for a judged poster session, Johnson recommends downloading the judging rubric (if it is available) and discussing it with the students beforehand. This is also a great resource for students to use while preparing their poster to make sure the key components are included.

Beyond making sure the physical poster is ready, Johnson spends times making sure his students are comfortable talking about their research. He helps them prepare a five- to 10-minute summary of their poster. He typically has them prepare a short executive summary and then also a longer explanation that goes into more detail; that way they can talk to attendees with and without a background in their area of research.

He said his students are usually nervous, and he has one piece of advice he always gives:

“You are the world’s foremost expert on this particular topic,” he said. “Go into the presentation with confidence — you know the work you’ve done, you know the background, and, while the people talking to you may know something about your research area, you are the expert.”

Judging undergrad posters

Johnson has served on the ASBMB undergraduate poster committee for the past three years and has judged for over 10 years, so has experience judging undergraduate presentations. In addition to using the judging rubric, Johnson tries to provide feedback that is both critical and supportive.

“Our goal is to provide strong feedback, but not in a way that is demeaning,” Johnson said. “I try to assess the science they did and meet them where they are to support them.”

Johnson said that when judging, it’s important to remember that students come from all kinds of backgrounds and infrastructures, with variable resources available to them. He thinks their output should be judged based on what they had access to, and expectations for techniques, data quantity, and collaboration shouldn’t be the same across the board.

“R01 institutions often have undergrads working with grad students and post-docs, where the work is collaborative, whereas students for primarily undergraduate institutions may have less resources available to them but they worked more independently on the research project,” Johnson said. “I’m impressed with their work no matter where they come from.”

Beyond the benefit for undergrads, Johnson said that attending conferences can be beneficial for the mentors of undergrads too.

“One of the most valuable things I’ve found is the community that’s built,” he said. “I look forward to coming back [to the conference] to talk to other faculty, researchers, and post-docs that are excited to support undergraduate research presentations and to continue to build an active and growing community that’s supportive of undergrad scholars.”

If you’re headed to Discover BMB, the ASBMB's annual meeting later this month in  Seattle, be sure to check out the undergraduate poster session on Saturday, March 25, to see and support the exciting research undergraduates are conducting.

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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