Record numbers at undergraduate research symposium

| Staff Reporter

Across the hall from an analysis of pedophilic overtones in haute couture, a group of students demonstrated a robot they built that follows moving sounds. Just outside, art students sold glass earrings alongside multicolored paintings of dead fish on plywood.

This year’s fall Undergraduate Research Symposium saw a record number of participants and, according to the program coordinator, an unusually diverse variety of topics. It packed student research, internships, art and even a lunchtime dance performance together in one forum for peers, teachers and parents to experience.

Just one week later, it was followed by another research symposium equally diverse in another way. University students presented their work side by side with students from 12 other Midwestern colleges in a weekend-long symposium hosted by the Midstates Science and Math Consortium.

According to Kristin Sobotka, special programs coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Research, which hosted the event, there was a record number of around 250 undergraduate posters, 10 high school students with posters, and 10 undergraduate talks. More presenters meant higher traffic.

“The word’s just kind of out. People know what it’s all about,” she said.

Fall symposia tend to see a higher density of biomedical research conducted by students over the summer and funded by Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURFs). In the spring, psychology and political science majors and other students typically present their honors thesis work. But Sobotka said this year was unusual.

“This fall we definitely had a larger number of non-life-sciences presentations, just because I think again the awareness level is rising among everybody,” Sobotka said. “More students who are doing a variety of different things know about it and just say on their own, ‘Hey, can I present at the symposium?’”

This year also saw the inception of a partnership between the art school and the Office of Undergraduate Research. Art students set up tables outside the building, where they sold prints of the Central West End, clay sculptures, and more.

“We helped support it and helped make it happen, but it was really the students in the art school that came up with the idea, and basically it was their show,” Sobotka said. “They came to us to ask if we could help them, and we did…We just want to keep that partnership and keep that happening each year.”

Saad Hasan, a senior, presented his thesis research at the undergraduate research symposium.

Hasan studies fish that create weak electric fields to sense their surroundings and communicate with one another, much in the same way that bats use echolocation. He made inferences about the evolutionary history of these fishes’ electric communication by comparing the volume of key brain structures across several species.

“The pretty big finding is that there are two subfamilies of the mormyrid family [of weakly electric fish], and there’s a dramatic difference in the size of what’s called the EL…between the two families,” he said. So the subfamilies show “a subspecialization of interpretive function” in the way they communicate.

Hasan said he received a “decent amount” of traffic, including professors and parents, and appreciated the way posters of different topics were all mixed in together.

“It was also interesting the way it was done, because you’re more likely to look at the [poster] right next to you, [which] could be anything,” Hasan said.

The weekend after the symposium, several Washington University students presented their work at a three-day conference in the Central West End hosted by the Midstates Math and Science Consortium, a collaboration between 13 Midwestern schools. Washington University and the University of Chicago take turns hosting an undergraduate biology and psychology conference, as well as a physics and chemistry conference each year.

About 90 students were in attendance, including five from Washington University, as well as faculty representatives from all 13 schools. The students attended poster sessions, plenary lectures, a panel on graduate school admissions, and social events in the evenings, including hands-on group neuroscience demos and a trip to the City Museum.

Senior Alejandro Akrouh gave a poster presentation about his research on a mutation that causes neonatal diabetes. He studied a mutation that was found in an infant patient that turned out to be a problem with ATP-dependent potassium—or KATP—channels. These channels regulate ion balances in the cell membranes of pancreas cells that are responsible for secreting insulin when blood sugar is too high.

“We found that the loss of function is due to inactivation of the KATP channel,” he said.

His work, which he pursued full-time during a year and a half off from classes, has led to two publications, two more that will appear in the next month, and a fifth currently in progress. But he said that since he has been very focused on his project, the most helpful part of the symposium was seeing a wide variety of research.

“Oftentimes, when you’re very focused on a project you can lose sight of what your academic peers are doing.”

This blitz of student presentations seems to have saturated students’ needs, and some opted to skip out on the consortium. While the Undergraduate Research Symposium attendance did not seem to be affected, some attendees said Washington University was under-represented at the Midstates Consortium conference.

“We could always do better with Wash. U. turnout,” said Erik Herzog, professor of biology and the Washington University representative to the consortium.

“The students that I’ve asked have generally said they’ve had enough opportunities to present. So it’s less about the location and more about that they have other things they need to do,” he said.