Undergrads Share Research Findings at Annual Conference

APRIL 17, 2015 – People regularly face environmental health risks, said Linda S. Birnbaum, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.

The toxicologist came to Georgetown today to deliver the keynote address as part of the two-day Undergraduate Research Conference, sponsored annually since 2003 by the Department of Human Science at the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

She spoke about the work of her institute to understand how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives.

“We’re all exposed all the time,” she said, noting that environmental health risks come from many places, ranging from industrial and infectious agents, to drugs and climate and weather.

Hard Work

After outlining current research and trends in the field and the work of her institute, Birnbaum told the audience in Riggs Library, “You can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment.”

Jan LaRocque, PhD, assistant professor of human science, and Alex Theos, PhD, assistant professor of human science, advise the student committee that planned the event. LaRocque says she always looks forward to sharing the experience with the student investigators and seeing the outcomes of their work.

“So many student researchers work so hard to obtain results, and it’s great to have a venue in which they can share their results and their experiences with others,” she said. “The growth in the number of conference attendees is remarkable and reflects the important roles undergraduate researchers play in scientific endeavors.

The conference has grown from 10 student poster presentations in 2003 to nearly 90 this year. Student participants represented Georgetown and several area universities.

Student Leadership

The leaders of the planning committee worked under the guidance of LaRocque and Theos, as well as Jennifer Ericson, MS, assistant dean, and Carol Hom, program coordinator in the Department of Human Science.

Conference chairs included Macarena Basanes (NHS’16), Aidan Neustadtl (C’16), and Taylor Polk (NHS’16). And members are Victor Wang (NHS’15), Kira Lin (NHS’17), and Kristen Watkins (NHS’17).

“I’ve enjoyed working on this conference so much, because I enjoy hearing about all the exciting work that's being done on our campus and in the area,” said Neustadtl. “I believe it’s important to have events like this to put a spotlight on the students who have dedicated a lot of their time to really important work.”

Cross-Campus Efforts

Both Neustadtl and Polk noted that the conference team participated in a larger campus effort around undergraduate research that also included the Symposium for Undergraduate Research and the Bioethics Research Showcase.

“The conference is an important part of Georgetown because it allows [students] to show off their hard work in undergraduate research while also giving others inspiration to start their own research projects,” Polk said.

Basanes added that the conference provides a good experience for the future.

“Working on the Undergraduate Research Conference Committee has been a blessing,” she said. “As students, we really enjoy the opportunity to showcase our research and receive constructive feedback. This conference allows us to practice this in a professional setting and prepares us for future endeavors.”

Conference Awardees

A number of awards were given at the conference.

Awards for oral and poster presentations are named in honor of conference founder Charles H. Evans Jr., MD, PhD, former chair of the Department of Human Science who retired in 2009. And the award for excellence in faculty mentorship is named in recognition of longtime faculty member Allan Angerio, PhD, associate dean for education and undergraduate studies.

Ronit Yarden, PhD, assistant professor of human science, won the faculty mentorship award.

“Mentoring you guys [is] the best aspect of my work,” Yarden said in her acceptance speech. “I really love it. You are an amazing group of students. . . . It’s really fun to watch you grow.”

Human science major Victor Wang (NHS’15) earned the award for best oral presentation. In addition, human science major Yuhao (Tom) Shi (NHS’15) garnered the award for best poster presentation.

Biology majors DongEun Heo (C’15) and Emma Spikol (C’17) were named first and second runners-up in the poster contest.

By Bill Cessato