The racket emanating from the Graham Center recently made one thing clear: research by undergraduates has reached new heights.

The investigational work of more than 100 students from two dozen universities led to hours of noisy, thoroughly engrossing discussions on formidable topics such as “Respiratory Bioengineering” and “Malware Forensics on Mobile Devices” to “Electrophysiology of Anxiety in Pediatric Populations” and Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption.” It was part of the inaugural FIU McNair Scholars Research Conference, an event open to all students and featuring posters and talks on primarily STEM-related projects.

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In the poster room—where at peak nearly 100 people stood around engaged in animated conversations over graphs and charts—sophomore FIU mechanical engineering student Danny Britt presented work on algae as biofuel. His interest began, much to his surprise, with a botany class, where he learned about the value of plants in absorbing CO2 emissions. That information led him to explore the potential for biofuels, a type of energy that doesn’t give off carbon.

“I got a wakeup call after I took that botany class, and I thought maybe other people should get a wakeup call and that’s why I’m here,” he said of his decision to present ground-breaking research he helped conduct over the summer at the University of Central Florida.

FIU senior meteorology major Brian Matilla presented both a poster and a formal 10-minute talk on a study geared to improving weather forecasting models. He spent the summer actively collecting data during an internship at the National Severe Storms Lab at the University of Oklahoma.

“The next step, which I think is the most important step of all, is being able to communicate our findings,” he said. “What better way to do it than to give a poster or oral presentation to share these findings and make it relatable to other fields. My job as a scientist is to be able to take these complicated findings and make it relatable to Joe public.”

Vanessa Olivares, from the University of New Mexico, saw the conference as the perfect venue for promoting her audiology research, work she believes will have continued value to both children and the growing elderly population. “I just want to get this out there because there’s not that many people in my field,” she said.

The opportunity to step out of the lab likewise attracted junior FIU biology major Jacqueline Moats, who presented a poster and talk on the neuroscience of age-related memory decline. “It allows me to see other research projects,” she said, “and it allows me to interact with colleagues and other students.”

FIU undergrads Jesus Perello, far right, and Anthony Llodra, second from right, explain the value of research to interested students from MAST@FIU.

Anika Augustin, a tenth grader at MAST Academy@FIU who visited for the day, took inspiration from a talk about the use of laser treatments to prevent epileptic seizures and a poster about water pollution in Costa Rica. The experience has her thinking about investigations she herself might undertake.

“It makes me realize that I can do it if I want to because I’m not that far off from going to college,” she said. “So if I want to, I can do this research just like they are.”

Engineering Professor Norman Munroe, who served on the conference organizing committee and as a judge, emphasized conference participation as a means for students to prepare for their futures.

“I think it sets the stage for these students to become researchers in the true sense of the word. It’s a good training ground in terms of how to make presentations, to answer questions from professors who can perhaps give suggestions. This type of exposure sets the stage for going to grad school.”

Assistant Vice Provost for Student Access and Success George Simms spearheaded the two-and-a-half-day conference, which included national speakers, workshops and a graduate fair. Simms worked with FIU’s McNair Scholars Program, for which the conference is named, a federally funded program that encourages members of underrepresented groups and first-generation college students to pursue doctoral degrees. He jumped at the chance to introduce more undergraduates to FIU.

“We have a lot of high-caliber work that’s being done here. We have world-class scientists doing research,” Simms said. “I think that bringing these students here and exposing them to what we do and who we are as an institution of higher learning will only help across the board.”

by Alexandra Pecharich: