After working on his project for two years, junior Charles Mitchell finally saw his work come to fruition when he gave an oral presentation on his project at the 15th annual Erickson Undergraduate Conference.
Guided by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Wade Grabow, Mitchell presented his research in laboratory-constructed RNA patterns called “tectoRNA,” and analyzed those patterns for potential use in nanotechnology and medicinal practices.
Mitchell said he’s excited to have it wrapped up and have the research potentially published in “an actual scientific article,” thereby getting his name out to the scientific community.
It is this kind of opportunity and support former Dean of College of Arts and Sciences Joyce Erickson was passionate about.
She initiated the Erickson Undergraduate Conference 15 years ago, and the conference is named in her honor. It has been supported by the College of Arts and sciences every year since its inception, according to Professor of Biology Jenny Tenlen.
This year, the conference welcomed guests and began introductions at 3 p.m. in room 109 of Otto Miller Hall on Friday, May 12. The goal of the conference is to showcase the research and design projects by SPU’s undergraduate STEM students, Tenlen explained.
“[The students] are doing interesting and high-quality work and don’t always have the opportunity to share their work with others,” she said.
In that regard, she believes the conference achieves three objectives: it is a professional development opportunity for students; a learning opportunity for both students and faculty; and a networking opportunity for both students and faculty.
At the conference, STEM students can practice their ability to communicate science to a broad audience in a clear and understandable way. Tenlen says it’s an essential skill to develop no matter what profession a student aspires toward.
Aside from student presenters, the Erickson Conference invites a keynote speaker each year, someone considered a leader in his or her respective field. This year’s speaker, Richard Feely, is a senior scientist at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.
Feely is an internationally recognized expert on ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels. During his talk, he shared the latest research on the impact of increasing acidity on marine ecosystems.
Students who attend the conference learn about current topics in research and design that relate directly to their courses, such as biology or computer science, allowing them to make connections between concepts they learn in class and how those concepts can be applied to research design and data collection.
“Potential collaborations arise when students and faculty in different disciplines have the chance to talk and see how these different disciplines can contribute to solving the same problem,” Tenlen said.
According to Tenlen, a conservative estimate of 250 to 275 people were in attendance at the conference.
Although attendance by the larger SPU community seemed down compared to previous years, Tenlen was happy to note that this year also brought in the largest turn-out for presenters.
All STEM fields were represented between the 28 oral presentations, 52 poster presentations and 154 students participating overall. Of those, 151 were mentored in their research or design projects by 28 SPU faculty, and three presented research completed during off-campus internships at Oregon Health Sciences University, the College of William and Mary and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
To put these numbers in context, Tenlen said that in the 2006 conference only 45 students participated in presentations.
She believes this may be due to increasingly greater emphasis in encouraging students to do research with individual faculty members and off-campus internships, in addition to a growth in STEM faculty over the years.
Each department has expanded since 2006, and with new faculty came new research and design projects, providing opportunities for student involvement.
What excited Tenlen the most is that so many students are interested and engaged in research. This year in particular, she has been approached by a significant number of first-year students interested in exploring research opportunities.
“The fact that they want to start now excites me,” she said, “because the longer students can work toward addressing their research question, the more likely they will be able to make true breakthroughs in our understanding of that question.”