Student scientists take center stage at UMBC’s largest-ever Undergraduate Research Symposium

The College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS) hosted its 21st Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS) in the Chemical and Biological Sciences this fall. The event has been growing steadily, and this year set new records: Students presented nearly 300 projects and more than 200 additional guests attended.

“It is so inspiring to see hundreds of undergraduate researchers from over 40 colleges and universities and nearly a dozen states coming together to present research to fellow students, mentors, and faculty judges,” shares Dean Bill LaCourse of CNMS. “Being able to communicate one’s research in a clear, concise, and defensible manner is a critical skill. I wish everyone had the opportunity to feel the students’ energy and excitement, as many presented for the first time.”

CNMS Dean LaCourse with students in UMBC’s Science Learning Collaboratory

Aleem Mohamed ‘19, biological sciences, and a member of the STEM BUILD Training Program, presented at URS for the first time in 2016. This year, he and his research partner Ilzat Ali ‘19, biochemistry, won first place in their judging group. Mohamed and Ali’s research focuses on figuring out how genes in bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacterial cells) affect a close relative of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis.

As HHMI-SEA Undergraduate Researchers, the duo worked with HHMI investigator Viknesh Sivanathan. Their mentor guided them as they got their project started, preparing them to branch out on their own. Mohamed says the experience “has made me develop a love for the research field I didn’t know I had, and has made me want to do research in my career.”

Joanna Lum ‘19, biological sciences, presented work she completed during a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and earned second place in her judging group. Lum investigated pathways that regulate viruses that may be involved in initiating cancer.

Gaining early exposure to research and receiving substantial mentoring from a community of scholars through the BUILD program have helped Lum find her way, she explains. Because of that support, “not only am I able to overcome many obstacles in the classroom and in the STEM field, I am also able grow in confidence and see myself as a scientist,” she says.

Lum’s experience with BUILD helped prepare her to apply for other programs, and now she is also a MARC U*STAR Scholar.

The URS event, and the work students do on their way to presenting there, can be a gateway to further research and other accomplishments. The day itself also serves as a stepping stone. Fernando Vonhoff, a pre-professoriate fellow in biological sciences, addressed the students prior to announcing the award winners at the end of the day.

“You are a better scientist now than you were yesterday,” Vonhoff told the students. Award or not, “Science is about the process, rather than the final outcome. Participating in this event and being exposed to so much good science during the whole day has been part of your process.”

“I am confident that this event will have a lasting and positive impact on all those that participated,” added Dean LaCourse, “and UMBC and the college are proud to sponsor this symposium in support of our future scientists.”

Image: Fall on campus. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.