Scitech | Showcasing research through competition

Conference provides forum for exchange of scientific ideas

On Thursday, October 4, McGill’s Faculty of Science hosted its eighth annual Undergraduate Research Conference, in an effort to celebrate collaboration between professors and undergraduates as they produce never-before-seen research. While most undergraduates are perfectly content with getting through a week of classes with an occasional drink or three, those presenting research at this conference have spent an exhausting amount of time over the last year striving to convert ideas and questions into answers, all of which are ultimately represented on large cardboard posters mottled with text, graphs, diagrams, and the occasional prop. The question is: how does one conference encompass a diversity of student research?

Enter Victor Chisholm, McGill’s Undergraduate Research Officer and the coordinator of the conference since its founding in 2005.  Standing well above 2 metres tall – and often touted by the Dean of Science as “the tallest man in the room” – he glided around the lobby of the Arts building armed with a clipboard and keen observation, interviewing this year’s contributors about their research as well as maintaining constant communication with other organizers.  Every year the many fields of science are organized into six categories; each is asked to contribute five to eight projects, which are individually chosen by the supervising professors.  These subcategories – Biological, Earth System, Health and Social, Mathematical and Computational, Medical, and Physical Sciences – contributed a total of 49 presenters this year, each of whom faced three judges each from different scientific backgrounds, ultimately leaving two winners for each department.

“I leave the criteria to the judges,” Chisholm stated in an interview with The Daily when asked about what determines a winning project, “but typically it’s based on how [organized] the posters are, as well as the level of knowledge and commitment demonstrated by the students.”

But not all contestants found judging to be constructive, and some were not even aware that there were awards until a day before the conference. Eric Bellefroid, a U3 student in Geology spent countless summer weeks mining iron samples in the Yukon and felt his hard work did not receive the criticism he desired, as none of the judges were from his field.

“It would have been nice to been asked more questions about the data,” he said with a sigh, complaining about how he received empty looks of confusion rather than constructive comments – comments that potentially could improve “the research [that sucked up] all the free time [he] used to have.”

Bellefroid’s struggle struck a consistent refrain as I spoke to the presenters; the collection and processing of data for a formal research project is an integral and often stressful task. “What makes research so difficult is that there is no right answer… so you begin to critique yourself constantly over the quality of your data,” explained participant Joseph Lewnard as he stood next to his large Excel graph displaying data correlating the strength of 17 types of diseases with global temperature. Lewnard’s professor gave him the topic a whole year ago and despite the progress he has already made, he still faces further challenges with handling the massive quantity of data needed to solidify his correlation.

Naturally, a large part of the purpose of displaying research is peer review and when asked about what he thought of the other projects, Lewnard felt slightly intimidated and “quite nervous seeing everybody else’s research.”

On the other hand, presenter Asad Harris found the environment inspiring. “Other people’s research is quite impressive, and I like to think I can sometimes compare it to mine and draw from it,” Harris, a U3 student in Mathematics, asserted. His project of formula integration only took four months to complete and his topic was self-conceived, not assigned by a professor like many others.

For Harris, “it [was] just nice to see a summer’s work being put up and presented in front of everyone.” This sentiment was shared by many of those contributing to the conference.

In summation, there was little concern for awards, grants, or publishing opportunities, but rather a collective happiness that hours of hard work can be displayed and appreciated. No matter the winner, each project stands as an example to encourage undergraduates to not simply learn from a classroom, but rather to make discoveries in the real world environment. And with McGill’s Faculty of Science as the award-winning, knowledge-generating machine that it is, it’s events like this that are necessary to keep students engaged in a subject and faculty that are ever-evolving.

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