Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to attend my first scientific conference, the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society, more easily referred to as BMES, in San Antonio, TX. There, I was able to present a poster on my undergraduate research project from the summer, as well as sit in on several panel discussions and presentations to get a sneak peek at unpublished research from universities across the country. Most importantly, however, I was able to network directly with other undergraduate students and PhD candidates alike about their work and experience living in different cities, and if I was fortunate enough, I was able to talk to faculty research advisors, or principal investigators (PIs). This was all possible due to not only the support of my lab and research mentors, but also with support from the Student Travel Award for Research Scholarship (STARS) program organized by Dr. Bansal, which fully funded the travel expenses for me and a handful of other UD BME seniors pursuing graduate school.
Now, do not be so easily fooled by my calm veneer. The four days at BMES felt like sprinting a marathon—physically with long days on your feet and emotionally with never-ending exchanges of pleasantries and daunting talks about Your FutureTM. And, the latter of which I know I signed up for, considering I was able to attend based on not only my research but my desire to pursue graduate studies, but it doesn’t make it any more comfortable to talk about. Repeatedly. For four days straight. It was hard to talk to so many different people for the first time, and in the case of PIs, make a lasting expression. Oftentimes, my internal monologue felt like the speed round of Wheel of Fortune, trying to piece together a thoughtful, worthy response on the fly mid-conversation. It’s only now that I am far removed from traversing the expansive halls of the small country that is the breathtaking Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and have fully decompressed, that I can decidedly say that my introverted self lived to tell the tale.
Dramatics aside, BMES was a really enriching experience and I am grateful to have it as my first conference. Sitting through presentations, a lot of information definitely went over my head, but I was proud of myself for the ones that I was able to closely follow along to. Talks were organized based on disciplinary topics — typically 5-6 talks per session, each fifteen minutes long —and you were free to come and go as you please. I gravitated towards topics relating to my current research and interests about drug delivery, biomaterials, and nanomedicine, but also made the time to visit other presentations featuring UD biomedical engineers, particularly a panel discussion by Dr. Rooney on inclusive teaching. As a writer, I further valued these talks beyond its data, for it exposed me to different methods and styles for effective science communication. There was a clear distinction between polished presentations, which heavily leaned into the storytelling of their project, as compared to those who didn’t make as strong of a connection with their audience.
Similarly, I was able to more closely engage with the research being done through the poster sessions held on the main convention floor. I presented my poster on the very first morning, so I wasn’t able to apply my newfound communication techniques for my work, but I was able to take what I learned from the questions I received to have more organic interactions with other presenters. Most questions ranged from wanting to hear the general project overview and specifics about a certain experiment, to what I wanted to do after university — all from PIs and graduate students alike. The work I presented was essentially the foundations for my senior thesis project, which will allow me to graduate with an Honors Degree with Distinction in the spring, and it was incredibly validating for these efforts to be recognized by others. I also felt a great sense of pride and confidence in being able to share my results, which made it progressively easier to talk to other people as the conference progressed, and I wanted to be able to do that for other undergraduates presenting. As I wandered the convention floor following my presentation, I was able to directly interact with both undergraduate and graduate researchers and ask them not only about their work, but gain insight about mentorship with their PI or PhD student, the lab space and environment, and student life. This was invaluable as it allowed me to curate my list of graduate schools with greater depth and clarity.
Overall, this opportunity allowed me to gain further insight into not only different programs and lab communities to consider as I submit my graduate school applications, but more broadly what kind of work is being done in the field and a sneak peek to what my life will be like following graduation. I am incredibly thankful for the lovely support network I have made with those in the STARS program for not only providing moral support and being a friendly face while navigating the booths and school receptions together, but for being a sounding board holding poster presentation practices in our hotel rooms late into the night. Needless to say, I am excited for the road ahead in the world of research.
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