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IGERT Trainees and UC Berkeley Faculty Inspire and Get Inspired at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students


The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) is the largest professional conference for minority students in the US who wish to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The meeting attracts approximately 3,300 individuals which include 1,700 undergraduate students, 400 graduate students and postdoctoral scientists and 1200 faculty, program directors and administrators. Students attend from over 350 U.S. colleges and universities. The aim of the conference is to encourage and provide advice and information necessary for underrepresented minority students to obtain advanced degrees.

More than 500 representatives from graduate programs at US colleges and universities as well as scientists from government agencies, foundations, and professional scientific societies attend ABRCMS in the exhibitors program to share information about graduate school and summer internship opportunities. These representatives present research opportunities, funding sources, and professional networks. During the four-day conference, over 1,500 students participate in poster and oral presentations in twelve disciplines in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, including biophysics and mathematics. All undergraduate student presentations are judged and those receiving the highest scores in each scientific discipline and at each educational level are given an award during the final banquet (Source

IGERT PI Robert Full is a member of the ABRCMS Steering Committee. The National Science Foundation-sponsored Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) in Bio- and Bio-inspired Motion Systems Operating in Complex Environments provided the support for six IGERT Trainees to attend the 2012 meeting: Marc Badger, Margaret Byron, Jasmine Nirody, Sofia Chang, Jean-Michel Mongeau and Sofia Chang. In addition, UC Berkeley’s Dean of Biological Sciences and Vice Chancellor of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity provided support for a dozen faculty to attend including IGERT PI Robert Full. UC Berkeley also operates a booth every year to provide extensive materials and advice from faculty and students. Trainees and faculty served as judges. Judges must attend an orientation session where the purpose of the program is explained (Fig. 1).

Underrepresented minority students giving a presentation had the opportunity to talk about their research projects and demonstrate their scientific understanding and presentation skills to IGERT Trainees. Students received constructive, positive and specific comments as feedback to improve and learn from this experience. All judging is accomplished using an extensive rubric, in part developed by IGERT PI Robert Full. The criteria include: developing a hypothesis and/or statement of problem, incorporating methods and controls or comparison groups, interpreting results, developing a conclusion, predicting future work, presenting the work orally, handling questions, and understanding interdisciplinary research, a new area promoted by IGERT PI Robert Full (Fig. 2). Scores are entered on-line. The judging program sets a national benchmark for excellence in biomedical and behavioral sciences education and training. Awards are given at the final banquet.

IGERT Trainees had the opportunity to attend a networking luncheon and meet and talk with a variety of students. Trainees heard some of the outstanding invited speakers. They saw the importance of the Meet and Greet with Speaker Sessions so students can see successful career paths from role models. Trainees became aware of the extensive set of professional development session and activities organized for the students. Sessions included those on understanding the graduate school application process, networking in your discipline, selecting the perfect PhD program, making effective poster and oral presentations, identifying career paths in STEM disciplines, mentoring to enable relationships that foster professional growth and development, writing successful personal statements for graduate school, defining strategies for taking standardized tests, navigating graduate school, grant writing for graduate students and postdocs, publishing, achieving your science and career goals, and leveraging diversity to increase team efficiency and creativity.

Address Goals

Primary Strategic Goal: Learning. Given their responses, IGERT Trainees were surprised that they benefited so significantly from attending a minority research conference. Moreover, most trainees had little knowledge of the many challenges that underrepresented minorities faced when attempting to apply to and attain advanced degrees in STEM. Barriers such as a narrow perception of available career paths, bias and stereotype threats, tokenism, the imposter syndrome, the absence of role models, the scarcity of mentors, isolation, the lack of access to influential social networks, and non-inclusive practice (Simard, 2009) become much more real and obvious when discussing career paths with the underrepresented minorities attending the conference. None of the IGERT trainees realized the level of effort made by minority research societies, how needed these efforts were and how extraordinarily effective they can be. More specifically related to the present meeting, IGERT Trainees learned how influential their feedback could be to underrepresented minorities, many of whom were giving their first scientific presentation. They came to realize that the most important thing was to encourage each student to continue their education and passion for the sciences. Also, they became more aware of how feedback should not be directed to the personal characteristics of the presenter, but rather to the way the data were presented and specific presentation elements.

Trainees came to understand why they should avoid using words and phrases like “Can’t”, “Don’t”, “Never”, and “Wrong,” and should instead say, “Consider”, “How about….?”, “Have you thought about ….?” Providing constructive feedback to a presenter can significantly affect their career. Statements such as, “You have great presentation skills,”, “Your conclusion was very thought provoking.”, “You showed great organizational skills when presenting the research.” and, “Your knowledge of the research was evident.” can be the positive reinforcement that can change the life of the student.

IGERT Trainees received feedback that their efforts made a difference. One professor commented to IGERT Trainee Sofia Chang that “coming from small liberal arts colleges many of these students have greatly benefited from graduate student researchers who can volunteer, interact, and share their experiences. It gives them a clearer path towards the future which they can really achieve.” Sofia went on to remark that, “The ABRCMS conference was eye-opening to the high quality of research that a well trained undergraduate student from an underrepresented background can achieve. Ranging from testing the limits of physiological performance in humans to engineering molecular vehicles that deliver drugs, the presentations fascinated me and humbled me as a volunteer judge for the event. This culturally and scientifically diverse conference is not just a milestone in their career, but also a source of inspiration for the current graduate students pursuing research.”

IGERT Trainee Margaret Byron felt, “It was a privilege to spend time at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) and to volunteer as a judge for oral and poster presentations there. The student participants’ work was almost invariably of the highest quality; if these students pursue graduate work, their futures are certainly bright! Speaking with the students was (I hope) enriching to both parties. I was able to give constructive feedback, and they shared with me their remarkable work. This conference was a great place for me to learn new science and to learn about the current state of undergraduate research.”

Finally Trainee Marc Badger conveyed that, “Many were undergraduates with questions about grad school life, and I felt like I was able to share my experiences effectively with them. This was an excellent outreach opportunity, and I feel that I benefited from the experience as much as the students with whom I interacted”.

Secondary Strategic Goal: Discovery. IGERT Trainees benefited from the meeting in ways that could significantly impact their research now and in the future when they create their own laboratory composition and select collaborators. Judging the oral presentations and posters of underrepresented minorities highlights the value of diversity. Diverse groups infuse new ideas, methods, and regarding this meeting, new ways of thinking about and explaining STEM. Not only does a diverse workforce address issues of social justice, but it becomes clear that diverse collaborative teams have a competitive advantage over individuals with only common experiences. The competitive advantage of interdisciplinary research and teams was emphasized for the first time at ABRCMS (Fig. 2). From an idea initiated by IGERT PI Robert Full, all student oral presentations and posters were also judged using the additional criteria of interdisciplinarity. A specific rubric was added to the main judging efforts.

Those students who demonstrated exceptional use and knowledge of multiple disciplines were recognized with an award at the banquet. Students should be encouraged to collaborate with researchers outside their field if they hope to conduct the cutting-edge research of the future. More explicit efforts at training interdisciplinary teams, which is at the heart of the IGERT Program, should be encouraged in far more programs. URL: