Musings from the Davis Undergraduate Research Conference

Last week, I finally experienced the dreaded Poster Presentation. After months of lab work and many frustrating hours tearing my hair out in front of a computer, I faced the most important part of this insane process we call science: sharing my results with others.

I have to admit, up until the day of the conference, I wasn’t really taking it seriously. It was only the undergraduate research conference and no one except myself would care if I messed up (undergraduates are generally assumed to be incompetent until proven capable). If anything, I was vaguely annoyed that my honors program required me to participate because it was a distraction from my research. I should have been working in the lab trying to finish gathering data not talking about the preliminary results!¹ Basically, my attitude leading up to the conference at best ambivalent and at worst annoyed.

I figured that since I was required to participate, I might as well get something useful out of the experience so I chose to present a poster, having never presented one before. I also spent a surprising amount of time working on the poster, partly because I like playing with graphics programs, partly because I hate turning in shoddy work, but mostly because I felt I owed it to my lab to reflect well on them.

The day of the conference finally arrived. The poster was printed, we Eisen lab undergraduates prepared ourselves for potential questions, and showed up on Friday afternoon with hundreds of other undergraduates to pick up badges and abstract books before pinning up our posters.

Overall, I was feeling pretty confident especially after I handled the first couple of casually curious onlookers with ease.

“Could you walk me through your poster, please?”

“What does this picture actually mean?”

“I’ve never heard of alpha diversity, could you please explain it?”

The whole affair still felt very gimmicky, but since I love to talk about my research, I was having a pretty good time.

Then everything changed quite suddenly. In the middle of talking to a former professor about my work I realized I was feeling stupid. Quite stupid. Embarrassingly stupid. My formerly confident responses had turned into:

“That’s something I’ll have to look into…”

“That’s a good idea, I hadn’t considered that…”

and, of course, the most dreaded of all answers:

“I don’t know…”

This particular professor has a well-earned reputation for teaching a challenging course that is universally dreaded by students. He’s incredibly sharp, an excellent scientist and has perfected the ability to expose holes in dubious logic. Talking to him is always an intellectual challenge, but during the poster session, it felt like walking on a tight-rope over a pit of lava. At any minute I would plummet to my death. All of my earlier confidence evaporated, I felt woefully under-prepared and my data seemed inadequate. I dreaded the inevitable pointed question that would expose gaps in my knowledge I hadn’t even known were there.

Needless to say, I was terrified. But at same time the whole experience was strangely exhilarating. Finally, the professor left, and several other people came in to ask me detailed questions before the session ended, but nothing came close to the grueling scrutiny of his questions.

After the poster session the whole lab went out to a celebratory dinner. Throughout the evening, my mind kept returning to the conversation with the professor. Somewhere during that conversation my ambivalence had turned to fearful exhilaration as I saw my work challenged and narrowly pass the close inspection of a knowledgeable outsider. I now understand better than ever before, the importance of his scrutiny. Under its influence, I was forced to consider the problem from other angles. Was my solution really the best? How could I improve it? Why hadn’t I thought of this other interpretation of the data? Sure, I had felt stupid, but that was a small price to pay for the knowledge and awareness I had gained.

As scientists, we are never more scientific than when we are critiquing and being critiqued by others. It forces us to defend our ideas and consider new possibilities, to bend our brains around foreign concepts, and perhaps most importantly, acknowledge our own stupidity and humbly accept the unexpected lessons whenever and wherever they appear.

I’m sure none of this is news to any of the scientists out there, nor to my research mentors, nor to the people who decided honors students needed to present at the research conference but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to discover it organically.

I guess the Undergraduate Research Conference turned out to be pretty educational after all. And now, like any scientist, I’d like acknowledge everyone who helped me: all of my mentors in the Eisen Lab, those who took time to stop by and be curious about my poster, and of course the professor who questioned me so thoroughly, you have all been excellent teachers.


 

¹This is possibly a symptom of a larger problem: I may be spending too much time with jaded graduate students.

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About Hannah Holland-Moritz

Hannah Holland-Moritz is a graduate student working in Noah Fierer’s lab. She graduated from UC Davis in June 2014 with a major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and minor in Bioinformatics and most recently spend a gap year working in Jonathan Eisen’s lab on the microbiome of seagrasses. Interested in Evolution, Ecology, Bioinformatics and all things microbial, she plans to pursue a career in research.
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