Accountability, collaboration, persistence, communication, and critical thinking—Austin College senior Jessica Hoffman says these are the skills needed in a researcher, “and if you don’t have them before you begin, the process of conducting research will certainly teach them to you,” she said.
She should know. She has been doing research in biology labs at the College since the summer after her freshman year, much of it related to cancer phenotypes and the migration of cells. She has learned many things from the research results—and the research process.
Jessica was one of seven Austin College students who traveled to the University of Houston at Clear Lake campus for the 125th Texas Academy of Science Annual Meeting in late February along with faculty Dr. Lance Barton, biology, and Dr. John Richardson, biochemistry. The students made five poster presentations and gave two oral presentations. Jessica gave an oral presentation of work she is preparing for her Austin College Biology Department Honors Thesis.
Her talk received first place for oral presentation in cell and molecular biology. The work presented was funded last year by a TAS undergraduate research award. From Argyle, Texas, Jessica is completing majors in public health and biology at Austin College.
This was not her first public presentation, having presented to her peers at many Biology Seminars and Women’s Health Forums on campus, and in a virtual presentation at the College’s Scholarship Conference. She even had the opportunity to present her work at the American Society for Cell Biology/European Molecular Biology Organization (ASCB/EMBO) Annual Conference in 2019.
Additional Austin College winning presenters at the recent 2022 Texas Academy of Science included:
- Senior Electra Coffman of Fort Worth, Texas, who received third place for her poster presentation in cell and molecular biology. She is completing majors in biology, with a molecular and cellular focus, and in Spanish.
- Senior Keegan Nichols of Cedar Park, Texas, who received second place for poster presentation in Conservation Ecology. He is completing a major in biology and a minor in environmental studies.
- Junior Sydney Versen of Sugar Land, Texas, who received third place for oral presentation in cell and molecular biology. She is completing majors in Biology, with a molecular and cellular focus, and minors in chemistry and in philosophy.
Three additional students presented at the conference:
- Senior Yasmine Bukhari, biology major of Dallas, Texas
- Sophomore Miranda Galvan, biochemistry major of Austin, Texas
- Senior Brigid Fox, biology major of Magnolia, Texas.
Barton said that the Austin College students were all “enthusiastic, confident, and informative.”
Senior Brigid Fox had not previously attended an academic or professional conference, though she had made presentations on campus. The broader experience, she said, helped her “gain an understanding about the community that exists between scientists,” she said. “For me, the conference was an opportunity to meet an array of brilliant undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students. While we were all there to present research on different topics, everyone was very encouraging and interested in their fellow scientists.”
Brigid presented her research at the College’s Women’s Health Forum in December with other members of her class. “Talking about research in a poster presentation is more like a conversation than a seminar,” she said. “Some people have the background information about your project from previous knowledge, but most do not. As a result, you must change your language based on your audience to create a sense of understanding for everyone.”
The Women’s Health Forum presentation took some of the nerves and jitters away before the Texas Academy of Science meeting. Brigid, and several of her fellow travelers, will next present their work at the Austin College Scholarship Conference March 24-25.
Even without awards for her presentation, Brigid already has made big gains. “Research at Austin College has taught me how to be adaptable,” Brigid said. “In the lab, there is never a 100% guarantee that everything will work out. When you are faced with setbacks, it is important to utilize innovation and problem-solving to get back on track or to change the direction of your work. This is an important skill I know I will use outside of the lab as is needed to find solutions necessary in all fields of work.”
Jessica, too, enjoyed the interaction with graduate students and professionals at the conference and took note of how they presented their work. “I learned about many different presentation styles and techniques based on what others prioritized in their talks,” she said. “The experience allowed me to gain confidence in my ability to present complex scientific information to a wide variety of audiences. I also watched a particularly engaging talk that inspired me to bring more passion and energy into my presentations instead of simply remaining informative.” She also came away with a lesson in remaining composed under pressure. “Let’s just say one of my slides did not present as planned,” she said.
Barton confirmed the value of the conference setting. “The conversations over research can be transformative as you see how others solve problems,” he said. “You ask questions, share ideas, get new ideas, develop new questions, and think about your research in the context of others working on so many different and related problems. For any student even considering a career in research or contemplating graduate school, you want the opportunity to interact with graduate students and see the caliber of work they are performing. You want to be able to have a measuring stick to see how your skills, ideas, and projects measure up.”
The Austin College contingent’s attendance at this meeting is sponsored by Austin College alumnus Larry Driver, M.D., who joined the group on the University of Houston campus to see the student presentations.
Dr. Driver wrote to Austin College President Steven O’Day after the conference.
“As a Fellow of TAS and an alumnus of Austin College ’76, I am so proud of the robust, high-level scientific research being done by undergraduate students in the milieu of their liberal arts education,” Dr. Driver wrote. “This wonderful work cultivates creative and critical thinking, teaches approaches to high-quality research design and conduct, and nurtures the student researcher and mentor interaction, something that will likely carry on into their future careers in science. As I expressed to Lance (Barton), ‘My idea of what you are fostering is something I think of as The AC Research Loop— Great students + great ideas + great faculty mentors → great research → advances in science → innovative and creative ideas for the next great students in line—and so on as a positive feedback loop.’
Austin College continues to be prominent among the many Texas universities and colleges who present research at TAS meetings, and this clearly enhances the perception of Austin College as a place of excellence in science as well as the liberal arts. No doubt, this elevates the stature of Austin College among all Texas institutions and augments the value of an Austin College degree; and, there are likely a number of additional downstream benefits as well. All of ’RooNation should be proud!”
The Texas Academy of Science emerged around 1929 and a physicist, a botanist, a mathematician, and two biologists were its founding members. TAS now publishes a peer-reviewed journal, The Texas Journal of Science, and conducts an annual meeting that highlights research across 17 sections across the sciences, provides substantial funding opportunities for students (~$25,000 awarded annually) and facilitates expert testimony on policy issues related to STEM or science education. TAS membership approaches 600 individuals, with a large portion of the membership as students.