This past weekend I attended the inaugural Boston Undergraduate Research Symposium hosted by the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association. An interdisciplinary conference, undergraduates from MIT, Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, UMass, WPI, Emmanuel & Olin were there presenting their research on a wide variety of topics, from Astrophysics to Sociology. It was heavily science-oriented, but included non-science topics as well (including a interesting comparison of the author of Peter Pan to Nietzsche by Heidi Hirschl of Harvard). The conference was dominated by poster presentations – I guesstimate there were roughly 100 posters, including one from my own UROP student, Daniella Baradalez Gagliuffi. Eight very excellent undergraduates talks were given during the course of the day, including three from MIT students. I was particularly impressed with how well these talks were given, absolutely clear and professional. There were also three “keynote” faculty speakers, Robert Langer from MIT (who runs a humungous lab), Daniel Schrag from Harvard University and Bruce Walker from Harvard Medical.
In addition to the research presentations, the conference made time for “Faculty Discussion Tables”, which is where I earned my lunch that day. It was as free-form as you can get – we weren’t given any instructions on what to talk about and neither were the students (Kenneth Janes, chairman of BU’s Astro department and my postdoc’s new boss, was also in our session). However, it turned out to be a very informative session, at least from my viewpoint. I was primarily interested to know how these students, who were predominantly first- and second-year undergrads, got interested in research so early in their career. To my surprise, at least a quarter of the students in my session were already old hands at research, having started off in high school. Indeed, one of my 8.012 students from this past fall, Vivian Lee, was presenting her high school research on tonal harmony and concentration (apparently listening to oboes are good for concentration). A few had even done multiple research projects at multiple institutions before coming to college. Certainly we had science fairs when I was in high school, but I’m impressed (and perhaps slightly distressed) at how early students are getting their hands dirty on real research.
I also asked the students if they had research parents, expecting it to be a biased sample, and in fact only about half did. There were the usual stories of the transformative aspects of doing research; one student, Alla Shnayderman from Northeastern, changed from nursing to biology after her research project on termite digestion inspired here. And there were very colorful stories on getting interested in science; e.g., experimenting with unknown chemicals and nearly burning down a kitchen! Kenneth and I also answered questions on various aspects of getting into graduate school; the relative importance of reference letters (high) and GREs (low); and why putting off graduate school for industry or travel isn’t really such a terrible idea. In all, it was a great opportunity to hear how our top undergraduate researcher are getting on today.
Over the course of the day, I was particularly struck by the racial and gender representation of students at the conference. The former was well-mixed and the latter clearly in favor of women; I estimate 6:7 male:female from the author index. Clearly the leaky pipeline for women in the sciences is not occuring at the undergraduate level.