Science Undergraduate Research Symposium

Discussions about zebra fish, Chinese mathematics and optical illusions filled the Beaman Student Life Center on Dec. 3 when more than 70 Belmont students gathered for the Science Undergraduate Research Symposium.

These topics may not appear to have much in common, but SURS is not a common undergraduate research presentation.  Any student, whether or not they’re a science major, can study and present information they’re passionate about at this annual event.

“It’s all about a way for them to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Dr. Robert Grammer, associate dean of the School of Sciences.

Some students gave 15-minute oral and visual presentations, while others set up posters in the Beaman Lobby and took questions from curious people walking by.

This year’s presenters used their knowledge and creativity to research a variety of topics.  Audio engineering technology majors Chase Bennett, Mike Corl, and A.J. Gilmer built their own sound panels and studied which designs were the most effective in diffusing sound for the average home.  The students in the mathematics department took a more global perspective on their projects and traced the roots of math in Chinese, Indian, European, and Middle Eastern cultures.

These student-driven presentations make SURS unique, said Grammer. “You’re the one in charge.”

SURS has been a tradition for the School of Sciences since 1991 when just five students presented at the first Belmont Undergraduate Research Symposium.  Six years ago, BURS had grown so much that SURS was created to give more students a chance to shine, and those who presented this year said the experience has brightened their résumés as well.

“People who interview me and who look at my résumé are amazed at what I’ve achieved as an undergraduate,” said Bao Nguyen, a senior biology major.

“They say, ‘You don’t just go to school and take regular class.  You expand your knowledge.’”

The lessons Nguyen learned in undergraduate research helped him earn a spot in Syburre, a program at Vanderbilt University where students work on projects in a professional research lab under the supervision of Dr. John Wikswo, who also gave this year’s SURS keynote speech, “The Challenges of Controlling Living Cells.”

Wikswo has been teaching for 33 years, but this was the first time he was asked to speak to a primarily undergraduate audience.  “I thought it was a fantastic opportunity,” he said.

Both Wikswo and Grammer said they didn’t have anything like SURS when they were in school because the scientific community is just now beginning to understand the importance of giving students research experience.

“Undergraduate research is extremely powerful the earlier the student gets involved and the more continuity the student has over multiple years,” said Wikswo.

After his speech, Wikswo browsed the poster session and enjoyed talking to students about their projects.

“The key thing is students are figuring out on their own things that they will remember better than things they are told,” he said.

“The challenge of undergraduate research is to tailor it to the interests of the students, not to force the students into the project but to basically be flexible enough that you find the project that’s going to really excite the student intellectually.”

Though Wikswo agreed undergraduate research would help students in the professional world when they graduated, he said the experience of preparing for SURS could teach them something they couldn’t learn in a classroom.

“Life has in it some very big, long, hard problems whether you’re in industry or academics or any other kind of field.”  He laughed.

“Some of them take a long time to solve, and I think undergraduate research is a wonderful place to learn how to solve big, long, hard problems.”

Photos by J. Michael Krouskop, Belmont University

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