Nine undergraduates in the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) distinguished themselves Nov. 9 in the second annual NSCP Fall Connection event, competing with a three-minute, elevator pitch-style presentation about their work in progress.
Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., said this year’s scholars did well. “It’s all about practice,” said Reid. “What we know about this program is that it’s a confidence builder.”
Kasey Nicole Potts, who is majoring in biological sciences, integrative physiology, and neurobiology at North Carolina State University (NCSU), was judged the winner.
Seven judges took part — six from NIEHS, plus Susan Lankford, Ph.D., director of Science and Technology Development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “This group made a very strong impression on me,” she said.
Potts said NSCP has given a huge boost to her career plans. “The program has been amazing, to be able to do your own project from start to finish,” she said. “We also go to seminars, and they teach us how to build our resumes and do interviews.”
Potts described her work using 3D printing to standardize the size and shape of objects used in mouse learning experiments to remove variables that make it difficult to compare results between similar experiments. She also uses proximity sensing and capacitive touch technologies, which work like touch screens on a smart phone, to more accurately record contact by the mouse.
“Kasey was able to nail this with very little coaching and feedback,” said her mentor, Jesse Cushman, Ph.D., director of the Neurobehavioral Core Laboratory. “She is one of the most capable and hardworking students I’ve had the opportunity to work with.”
Honorable mention went to Suzanna Kafer, a biochemistry and environmental toxicology major at NCSU. She discussed her research on why the common infertility drug Clomid works better for some women than others.
Communicating with confidence
“The event is designed to encourage young scholars to communicate effectively, to a general, nonscientist audience,” added NSCP coordinator Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., who is a contractor for OSED. “This helps develop research communication skills, serves as an assessment of progress of their project, and provides an opportunity for low-stakes feedback.”
This is the second year for the elevator pitch competition, which is one of three opportunities for the scholars to present their research. In July, they took part in a poster session.
On top of all that, this was the first year all scholars presented at conferences outside of NIEHS, including the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Indianapolis, in October.
Next spring, they will give longer talks on their completed projects. That event, which is the annual NSCP symposium, marks the program’s completion, Bhattacharjee explained.
Connecting since 2012
NSCP was launched in 2012 to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in science — especially environmental health sciences, technology, engineering, and math.
Scholars work full time during the summer and 15 hours a week during the school year, in addition to doing their class work, Potts explained. “We all enjoy the work,” she said.
This year’s NSCP scholars include six from NCSU and one each from North Carolina Central University (NCCU), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Duke University, and St. Augustine’s University.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)