Wa Liu

On Sept. 7, the Yale Undergraduate Research Association’s first research symposium gave Yale STEM students an opportunity they had not had before — a chance to distinguish themselves at a research symposium at their own school.

The symposium awarded one grand prize and a number of honorable mentions, and, like other science symposia, offered students the opportunity to beef up their resumes. Until this month, Yale was one of the only schools among its peer institutions to not offer a science symposium — something STEM students interviewed said put them at a distinct resume disadvantage, making it more difficult to successfully apply for jobs or graduate school.

“In high school, there are things that are deliverables that show that you are good at something, or better than others at something,” said chemistry major Andrew Saydjari ’18.

But when STEM students arrive at Yale, he said, that changes.

While some students in the humanities receive awards for exceptional essays, said Saydjari, there are no awards for similarly well-done problem sets or tests. As a result, students who do exceptional work in their classes do not receive any recognition for the work besides a letter grade.

This lack of recognition for the top students in classes was not a big problem when top grades were not as common, but grade inflation has changed that, he added. An “A” in Math 120, for instance, no longer equates to outstanding work, he said.

According to math major Alois Cerbu ’18, one of the ways that students are able to stand out is through a summer research project. But summer only comes once a year, and it is not always clear on resumes how involved the research was.

YURA was founded in part to address those issues. It was created in the spring 2015 by five Yale undergraduates as an avenue for Yale’s undergraduate researchers to collaborate and for Yale students to learn more about research opportunities in the University.

The goal of YURA and its research symposium, explained Jingjing Xiao ’18, YURA’s director of communications, is to allow Yale’s “community of researchers to meet with each other and talk with each other in a way that they’ve never had an opportunity to do before.”

In contrast to Yale, where this is the first year a research symposium has been available to undergraduates, other peer universities have held such conferences for years. Harvard began its symposium in 2007 and Dartmouth began its own in 1992.

Yale’s symposium, a daylong conference with two poster sessions, was intended both to help introduce freshmen to research opportunities at Yale and to promote discussion among upperclassmen in the various STEM departments.

Several students interviewed suggested that they felt it would be important for people unfamiliar with their lines of research to understand their projects, particularly in applying for grants.

“The symposium was a great step forward — that Yale didn’t make — in terms of having students get recognition for their research,” said Saydjari, referring to the fact that the University itself did not host the symposium. Instead, it was structured as an undergraduate extracurricular activity.

Saydjari, who won first place in the symposium, said these sorts of small awards were particularly useful because larger accomplishments like publications in journals can take months or even a year to come to fruition. Because of this, a junior doing research over the summer might not have a paper published in time to apply for graduate school. But with the symposium, a junior will be able to present research to prospective employers or schools.

Approximately 100 students attended YURA’s first undergraduate research symposium.