How to make the most of the ACS national meeting when taking undergrads: Be Organized (but not too much)

Make the national ACS meeting a reward for the hard work your undergraduate researchers are doing in the lab! Dr. Sunghee Lee explains how in this very practical take on making the most of the ACS meeting (psst…she even has a sample itinerary!)


Recently, I posted a blog regarding my experience leading a large undergraduate research group, where I emphasized that it is essential to manage, but not over-manage.

The same holds true when organizing trips with undergraduate students to a professional meeting such as the ACS National Meeting: for a successful and meaningful experience for you and your students, it is essential to be organized, but not excessively so.

Photo Feb 28, 8 49 40 PM
Project Symphony (The Sunghee Lee Soft Interface Laboratory Group) members at the 250th American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition, Fall 2015

For the past 10 years, I have regularly taken undergraduate students to the ACS national meeting. The first instance, at the 2005 Boston meeting, involved only one student, and now this number has reached more than a dozen students at a time.

In this blog, I would like to recount and share some of my experiences, for the benefit of other PUI professors, whether you are taking just a couple of students to a meeting, or a dozen or more.

Plan Early: Excite Your Students and Build Anticipation

Whether students are presenting their own research or just attending for the experience, participation in a professional meeting such as ACS should be intertwined with the research activities with which students have been involved during their undergraduate careers. I would like to suggest that faculty should consider such a meeting as a central experience for the students, in parallel with their laboratory research experience. In this regard, it is ideal to tie meeting participation to regular research activity. All of my students view the ACS meeting as a reward for their intense summer-long research activity, and something they are excited about and look forward to. Most research activity happens during the summer in my situation, hence I consider the ACS Fall national meeting as a capstone event for celebrating their research activities. This can be a wonderful way to wrap up the summer research experience, can be considered as an incentive for students. Therefore, I typically choose the Fall ACS Meeting, conveniently occurring between the end of summer and before the Fall semester begins. In my lab, I have a list of upcoming ACS national meeting locations posted on a bulletin board for everyone can see and dream about presenting there.

All of my students view the ACS meeting as a reward for their intense summer-long research activity, and something they are excited about and look forward to…

When freshmen research students witness the attendance of one of their older colleagues at a national meeting, this can serve as a powerful motivation for them to want to similarly make a presentation. So I suggest that you can excite your students with the opportunities that lay ahead, and build up their anticipation.

Plan Details: Build Itinerary for Students and with Students

Once you decide to take student(s) to a meeting, having a detailed itinerary is essential for you and your students. This is key to a successful meeting experience; otherwise, students will be overwhelmed by the large number of technical sessions to choose from and be easily distracted, thus missing a valuable learning opportunity.

When you prepare an itinerary, make sure that you are in charge of suggesting educational activities and lists of general lectures to recommend for students. In addition, please ensure that the itinerary contains some flexibility built in, so that students will be able to explore their own specific interests as an individual.

..having a detailed itinerary is essential …otherwise, students will be overwhelmed.. and easily distracted, thus missing a valuable learning opportunity.

During itinerary building, I suggest you to involve students as often as possible, so that they feel ownership about the journey ahead, rather than just being taken or directed. My suggested list of tasks for students involves not only educational lectures, but also concerns such as finding social activity (e.g., tourism) around the town, and arranging a place for a meal on certain day, etc. This works out very well particularly when you have a large group of students. Let them dispute, argue and compromise in choosing activities to do together before they come to the unified conclusion. Such an experience is another potential opportunity for undergraduates to have a growth and
learning experience, outside of classroom and laboratory.

In building an itinerary, I found that the portion of the ACS website devoted to “ACS Undergraduate Programming” to be very helpful and I encourage all faculty to take full advantage of their program.

This undergraduate program runs Sunday through Tuesday, and typically includes activities such as free breakfast for undergraduates at the hospitality center, and many prearranged sessions targeting undergraduates such as graduate school reality check, recruiting events, and other luncheon and seminar series.

One noteworthy event which I typically suggest to my students is the “Undergraduate Eminent Scientist Luncheon & Lecture” (typically at noon-2 on Monday), which is followed by the undergraduate research poster session on Monday afternoon (typically at 2-4 pm). Afterwards there is the Fred Kavli Innovations in Chemistry Lecture, late Monday afternoon. Another favorite moment for undergrads includes the experience of a gigantic poster session, such as Sci-Mix interdivisional poster session & mixer. I usually build these events into the itinerary.

Undergraduates can take some initiative in speaking with professionals about various instruments they are using or any product about which they are interested in learning more.

ACS Exposition

Even attendance at the exposition can constitute an educational experience. Undergraduates can take some initiative in speaking with professionals about various instruments they are using or any product about which they are interested in learning more. Therefore, you can assign specific tasks to your students (based on their interests and research theme), instead of just letting them browse through for free samples. For example, you can have one team (my research group consist of several sub-project teams) to find out about instruments that measure “surface and interfacial tension”. Another team can investigate “light scattering” instruments, etc. Not every undergraduate institution is equipped with every “bell and whistle”, and this exposition can serve as a good opportunity to learn about various instruments they may have only learned about in a lecture. You will be surprised how actively involved students can become in learning how it works, evaluating the product, and even make suggestions about what to choose and why. Even a chemist-in-training at an ACS Exposition can be like a kid in a candy store!

I ask all student-attendees to submit their own reflections at the end of the meeting, in pictures and words, so that a collage of photos and quotes can become a precious memory.

Sample itinerary

Day 1, Saturday:

  • Arrival to a ACS meeting location: Visit registration site, complete registration and badge pick up.
  • Exploring the town: Orient to the location in and around convention center, and various meeting sites. Include fun sightseeing opportunity.
  • Group meeting over dinner: Discuss the details of the itinerary and other housekeeping issues, dress code, etc.

Day 2, Sunday:

  • Breakfast meeting at the ACS Undergraduate Programming Session: typically has a dedicated space for undergraduate)
  • Attend undergraduate events (morning)
  • Attend Presidential symposium event (afternoon)
  • Attend Exposition

Day 3, Monday: Very busy day for undergraduate researchers

  • Start with breakfast meeting at the ACS Undergraduate Programming Session in the morning.
  • Eminent scientist lecture and luncheon (early afternoon)
  • Undergraduate research poster presentation (late afternoon)
  • Kavli lecture (early evening)
  • Attend Sci-Mix interdivisional poster session & mixer

ACS-Boston-2015Day 4 and 5, Tuesday and Wednesday: Flexible day

Flexible day for students depending on their interests. However, it is important to designate one or two events for all to attend together, rather than leaving a whole day totally open for everyone.
Group dinner a day before departure: reflection


~ Dr. Sunghee Lee is the Board of Trustees Endowed Professor and Chair of Chemistry at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. A summary of her group’s research can be found at her homepage: www.dropletbilayer.com.

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