Last weekend Yale hosted its first-ever collegiate research conference, bringing together undergraduates from 23 schools across the nation to present research on topics ranging from genomics and biostatistics to social inequality.
Over 80 undergraduate researchers and 10 speakers gathered at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale for the inaugural Yale Undergraduate Research Conference, organized by the Yale Undergraduate Research Association. The speakers, which included students and Yale faculty, gave an eclectic mix of lectures that touched on topics ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to the architectural significance of the Guggenheim Museum to gender stereotypes in the 2016 election. The first of its kind at Yale College, the conference is also unique across top U.S. schools, few of which have held similar research conferences on their campuses.
“The process of getting started with research as an undergraduate at Yale used to be rather isolating and daunting … our goal as an organization was to build a community around undergraduate research at Yale and foster dialogues across disciplines and among peers,” said Nishant Jain ’18, co-founder of YURA, which was established in 2015 to support undergraduates conducting research at Yale.
Although YURA has organized research symposia previously in both 2015 and 2016, these gatherings allowed Yale undergraduates to present to their Yale peers. This weekend’s conference represents the first YURA effort to organize dialogue on a national level.
“The conference gives opportunities for students to present their work, where they are judged on the quality of what they’ve done and receive feedback on their projects … they learn how to better think like a scientist, humanist or social scientist,” said Stephen Wang ’19, the current co-president of YURA.
Joy Chiu ’19, whose research on antimalarial drug action earned her a life sciences researcher award at the conference this weekend, said her primary motivation for participating in the conference was to get a broader sense of the research community.
“I think it’s very easy in lab, especially as an undergraduate, to lose sight of the larger picture because you’re not yet participating fully in the community of scholarship,” Chiu said. “Most likely, you are interacting with other researchers through your mentor or [principal investigator].”
On Saturday, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway opened the conference with a keynote speech on the history of African American faculty, students and workers in higher education. The day continued with three poster sessions, in which students from schools ranging from the University of Chicago to the University of Texas at Austin presented their research. Sunday featured several student speaker presentations chosen from the initial applications for their exemplary research. The conference finally closed with a keynote address by Yale molecular biochemistry and biophysics professor Joan Steitz, who discussed her research on biomolecules and the medical impact of basic science.
Conference organizers Charlotte Herber ’18 and Daniel McQuaid ’18 selected keynote speakers they deemed compelling and inspirational, while also attempting to keep a diversity of topics across the four addresses.
“We wanted invited researchers to be representative of the group they are speaking to,” Herber said.
Conference attendees commended the conference’s secondary mission to host a diversity of fields while also uniting many schools. Rana Abuhilal, a junior at Columbia University who does research on the gender gap in workforce participation in Middle Eastern countries, said she was glad to engage with different types of student research she did not necessarily have a background in.
“In political science, we often find ourselves presenting simply within our departments, but it’s so important to diversify these conferences,” Abuhilal said.
Though New Haven was battered by a snowstorm over the weekend, causing some attendees to leave early on Sunday for safety, Wang said he is proud of the work YURA accomplished, especially with a much smaller budget than that of more well-known conferences such as the National Collegiate Research Conference hosted by the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association, which was founded in 2007.
“We just onboarded a new team in January,” Wang said. “I’m excited to see that we were able to pull off an event of this scale.”
For the future, YURA aims to expand its budget for the annual conference so they can invite more researchers and subsidize trip expenses in an effort to attract students from more distant colleges like Stanford, Herber said.
The YURA board consists of 26 members, and this conference marks the end of YURA’s second year at Yale.