An Undergraduate Head Start

Posted On January 23, 2012 by Jeremy Craig

ATLANTA — On a December day in a small, nondescript conference room of the Natural Science Center, senior Erica Li stood before a gathering of fellow students, giving a presentation on the monkey pox virus.

Li carefully made her way through charts, bullet points and graphs, explaining an outbreak of the disease in 2003. Through the loud noise of drilling and hammering next door, she stayed on track, as professor Dabney Dixon asked Li’s fellow students what she could do to make her presentation better. Li then took a seat.

“Speakers don’t sit down!” Dixon exclaimed. “Now, what can you do to help her with this slide? What would have you changed?”

The presentation was all part of a small group of students — the Undergraduate Journal Club — that meet regularly under Dixon’s tutelage. Though they come from different backgrounds – biology, chemistry and astronomy, for example – they share a curiosity about science, and exceed academically, with their sights perhaps one day going to graduate school, or becoming a teacher.

They meet to hone presentation and data analysis skills, and usually one student gives a seminar at each meeting about their own work or work found in a literature review. They’ve talked on subjects as wide ranging as double stars and the genetics of worms, to the hibernation of bears in Alaska and using databases to analyze biological data.

“I’ve learned a lot about different areas of the sciences through the group,” Li said. “I’ve discovered a lot of new things.”

To Dixon, it’s important to her to help mentor students, even with all of the hustle and bustle of being a professor.

“I was so pleased to be asked to mentor this group,” Dixon said. “I remember how important mentors were to me as an undergraduate. It is so exciting to watch the metamorphosis from undergraduate students into beginning professionals — the changes are rapid and immense.”
The club is the brainchild of Ngoc Ly Nguyen, who says she created the gathering to give her fellow students a chance to relax, network and talk about science.

“I have many different scientific interests, but I don’t have the time to explore all of them,” Nguyen said. “By meeting and presenting our research at the club, we get a chance to learn more about different scientific studies and fields. We get to sort of become Renaissance men and women.”

Shasmine Kelly, now a graduate student with interests in bioinformatics and biotechnology, said she learned a lot from the group.

“It helped when I went to the Georgia State Undergraduate Research Conference, and at other presentations, and it has been great to learn from others in the group,” she said.

Another group member, Johnny Truong, a junior majoring in chemistry, gave a presentation at a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute symposium. Learning how to perform research in a lab is important, but results must be communicated to others – something the group has helped teach him and others how to do.

“The whole experience has exposed me to the process of research, and the mystique and the beauty of it,” he said.

Presenting research isn’t easy, and even the most accomplished professors from top universities can slip up. Dixon cited the importance of referencing where graphs and pictures come from, and even matters such as font size and bullet points.

Keeping the audience’s attention is critical.

“If you let them get away from you, you won’t get them back,” Dixon said. “I’ve seen professors checking messages and emails when that happens. You’ve got to be really engaging.”

Jan. 23, 2012