An Undergraduate’s First Scientific Conference Experience
Attending your first scientific conference is daunting for anyone, but especially for an undergraduate student, like myself. I have been working as an undergraduate researcher for three years at LSU, and despite all of the time I’ve put into my lab work, it was still amazing to me that finally I would be seeing that work recognized at an international conference. I have been working in the lab of Dr. Michael Hellberg in the College of Science’s Biological Sciences Department for the past year. Coming into the lab as an undergraduate researcher, I did not expect that eight months later I would be traveling to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada to present my research at the 2019 Benthic Ecology Meeting (BEM). This conference focuses on marine benthic (i.e. sea floor) ecosystems, and the invite is extended to scientists around the globe.
Last summer, Dr. Hellberg and I discussed research projects that I could work on during my senior year at LSU, and one project stood out to me. I chose to focus my research efforts on the examination of the microbial communities of corals, water, and sediment associated with shallow hydrothermal vents in the coastal waters of the Baja Peninsula, a peninsula in Northwestern Mexico that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California. While most corals thrive in temperatures from 18 to 25 degrees Celsius and can bleach and suffer mass mortality when exposed to warmer waters, these particular coral colonies are living near the hydrothermal vents where water temperatures can be as high as 80 degrees Celsius, or 176 degrees Fahrenheit. There are already a number of collaborators working to understand which physiological factors allow these corals to survive long-term exposure to the extreme temperature conditions produced by the vents. Research has shown that microbes living in the sediment and water around hydrothermal vents in other parts of the ocean can survive happily in extreme conditions. But Dr. Hellberg began to wonder if the corals living near the vents in Baja had specialized microbial communities that may be providing the coral some type of protection allowing them to live in such extreme temperatures.
Knowing the current threats to corals with increasing ocean temperatures and acidification, this project excited me. What if these corals had microbes that actually helped them thrive in warmer waters? What would this mean for corals as the oceans continue to warm? So I spent the next eight months working in earnest to uncover the secrets of the microbial communities in the corals near the hydrothermal vents.
A week leading up to the conference, it finally sank in that I would be presenting my research in front of other scientists from across the world. This was probably one of the most stress-induced weeks of my undergraduate career! Putting finishing touches on my poster, while battling other school duties and a bad cold, I finally survived my week, and I could nervously look forward to the following one ahead. It was a relief that I would not have to attend the BEM conference alone; my fellow lab mate and graduate student mentor, Alicia Reigel, a Ph.D. candidate in the Hellberg lab, and a former lab mate and friend Megan Guidry, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Dr. Morgan Kelly, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Biological Sciences, joined me for the week of science-filled festivities.
Once I arrived in St. John’s, fear and intimidation overcame me knowing that Megan and I were undergraduates who were outnumbered by well-experienced, highly-educated scientists. Our days would be long with talks starting as early as 8 a.m. and lasting until early evening. I learned that my poster presentation was scheduled to be the first day of the three-day conference. During the three hours I stood in front of my research, I hoped to gain the confidence to present the work I had spent months preparing. No one warns you about the feelings of inadequacy that you get the first time you present in front of your peers, potential future advisors, and colleagues. However, within minutes that feeling of inadequacy melted away as other scientists showed a genuine interest in my work! Not only was I able to draw people to my poster with eye-catching figures, but I was also able to hold their attention while I proudly spoke about my research.
My biggest fear leading up to my poster presentation was that I was going to be asked questions I did not know how to answer. In reality, I was able to confidently answer most questions I was asked, and I quickly realized it was okay if I did not know the answer because it was beyond my expertise, and no one seemed the least bit fazed if I wasn’t able to answer a question. Throughout the night I had a stream of people stop to converse about my research. During my poster presentation I met a few people whom I connected with on a personal and professional level, and some I am still in contact with months after the conference.
For the remainder of the conference I fully and confidently immersed myself into the science. What stood out most was being exposed to the different areas of study within the benthic ecology field. I met Dr. Lauren Stefaniak, an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University and a well-known ascidian (i.e. sea squirt) taxonomist, whose success in the benthic ecology field as a young female truly inspired me. I sought out her advice to young researchers, like myself, on how to find success in science field. She provided me some great insight from her experiences:
Me: What is your advice to someone like me, about to graduate, and to other rising scientists as they prepare to apply to or attend graduate programs in the sciences?
Dr. Stefaniak: Finding the right match with an [graduate] advisor is very important. When going to grad school, matching with your advisor is more important that what school you’re going to attend. Being able to have the self-imposed deadlines so things don’t get away from you is something you really have to do, especially if you have a more hands-off advisor.
Something I would say to a student would be that when opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to take them. Often times those opportunities are not the safe and comfortable thing to do, but you never know where they are going to lead. They led me to, thus far, good places.
Me: What are some things you think that students, like myself, don’t know or expect when coming into a graduate program that could help them be more successful.
Dr. Stefaniak: One of the things about grad school that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily realize is that we call it “school”, you are taking classes, but it is a job. It is a job that if you’re not careful, it will take every waking moment and then some…. A lot of people will say ‘well in your free time…’ and then kind of laugh and then joke about it because it is 95% work and 5% life. You do have a lot to do, and you have to get it done, but it is important to remember you do need to have a life; it is not just in the lab.
Scientists are often seen when they are presenting these interesting results, and they find these cool things and are really excited about it. But the thing to remember about science is that a lot of the time it doesn’t work. It was actually Dr. Barbara Stay at the University of Iowa, who told me this. Her piece of advice to me is that to be a scientist, it is not coming in [to the lab] every day and [the research] works, and you keep going and you just get all of your data. To be a scientist, you have to be able to come in and have it fail and come back in the next day, try it, have it fail, and to keep doing that. Failure is a common part of science and that you have to be prepared for a lot of failure before it finally works. A big part of the science is being able to salvage something out of failure because it happens all the time.
Dr. Stefaniak’s advice really hit home for me as I start to think about applying for graduate school in the fall. Listening to the story about what it took for Dr. Stefaniak to find her confidence in herself and to keep pushing through failures makes me reassess myself, encourages me to step outside my comfort zone when choosing a career or project, and pushes my limits to see what great work I might accomplish. Her words of wisdom will help guide me into this new professional chapter in my life, and I hope to share my journey to success with another aspiring scientist someday.
While conferences are all about the science, we were still in an amazing international location and wanted to enjoy our surroundings too! Thankfully, near the end of the BEM conference, there was free time set time aside for everyone to explore the St. John’s area, so Alicia, Megan, and I took full advantage of the chance to see more of Newfoundland. We took a tour with others from the conference to see some of the major landmarks in St. John’s. The most memorable stop of the tour was the lighthouse at Cape Spear, also known as the eastern-most point in North America. Bracing for pictures in 40 mph winds trying not to fall off the rocky cliffs into the ocean below made for some iconic photos! This scene was so incredibly beautiful and made me proud of my journey to get there.
Our very last night in St. John’s was bitter sweet. I realized how fast the time had gone and how much fun we all had during the whole week. We took our final seats in the large ballroom and ate a three-course dinner. The president of the meeting gave his thanks to everyone who participated and announced the winners for the best presentations in each category. To my complete shock, my name was announced as taking 3rd place in the undergraduate presentation category! Watching my graduate student mentor, Alicia, jumping out of her seat, I knew if it weren’t for her pushing me to get here, I wouldn’t be accepting this award. I walked up with my hands shaking and accepted my award. Preparing my poster for this conference, I wasn’t planning on winning; I was just excited to go to my first conference, but it was a great and very rewarding surprise!
What I learned from presenting and attending my first scientific conference is that confidence is the key to success. Despite how difficult it can be, you should not feel intimidated by others in your field nor should you discredit yourself from the work you have done. You may not be the most experienced person in the room, but you have worked hard on your project and you are the expert on this topic! I am proud of myself for accepting this great opportunity, and for finding the confidence in myself to proudly present my work. I even won an award! This conference was the most career changing experience I have had, next to stepping foot into my first lab job. I think it is safe to say that my final semesters here at LSU have been the most fulfilling for my future. I firmly recommend that each and every undergrad researcher try to attend a scientific conference!