Each semester, Utah State University’s Department of Biology hosts a public poster session, during which undergraduates showcase their research projects, internships and field course experiences. Ordinarily, the event is held in a large gathering space, where guests can move freely between posters and chat with the young researchers.
Of course, this is no ordinary semester.
“The pandemic derailed plans for our usual symposium, but we were determined to find a way to highlight our students’ efforts,” says Dani Lawrence, academic advisor for the Department of Biology. “Our students have already had to give up so much this semester, we did not want to let them lose the chance to showcase their hard work.”
With Biology department head Diane Alston and system administrator Joe Shope, Lawrence set to work on a virtual version of the symposium, featuring a format in which people visit a website displaying the posters and can submit comments and ask questions. All are invited to visit the site, Spring 2020 Virtual Undergraduate Research Symposium, which will be open for comments through Friday, April 17. Following the symposium, the research posters will remain publicly available as an online archive.
Lawrence says the virtual symposium came together in a very short time frame.
“We had a ton of help from Joe and we’re very excited to see how it turns out,” she says.
Undergraduate participant Jonah Fronk, who is among about 50 presenters, says, so far, the online gathering has been a valuable learning experience.
“This is my last symposium, as I’m graduating this semester, and my first time actually presenting research,” says the biology major, who has conducted research on snakes with faculty mentor Al Savitzky. “I’ve learned a lot and it is really gratifying to have my work out there for people to see. Even though it’s so different this year, I think it has been worth it to continue the symposium.”
Fellow student presenter Alexandra “Alex” Lish agrees.
“I really like the layout of the event and how you can see all of the posters at once, similar to how they would be laid out during an in-person symposium,” says the veteran presenter, who is the College of Science’s 2020 Peak Prize Undergraduate Researcher of the Year. “I always look forward to these symposiums, where I can interact with other people in the undergraduate research community.”
The biology and biochemistry major says she’s glad the event wasn’t cancelled.
“I was happy to see this event transition to an online platform during the pandemic,” says Lish, who is investigating genes involved in cowpea resistance to seed beetles with faculty mentor Frank Messina. “The undergrads worked very hard on their research and it’s important to give them the opportunity to present their work.”
Alston says organizers are so pleased with the virtual format, they plan to continue it in conjunction with future in-person symposia. Additionally, she says, presenters had the option of entering their posters into a competition, from which volunteer graduate student judges will select awardees.
“I have enormous praise for our Dani (Lawrence) and Joe (Shope),” she says. “They’ve done a marvelous job of putting together a valuable presentation opportunity for our undergraduates in a very short amount of time.”