When summer draws to a close, so does the conference season. Looking back, we’ve asked Dr. Chris Cramer to highlight an excellent summer 2016 chemistry conference targeted to undergraduate researchers and their PIs in Computational Chemistry: The MERCURY conference.
I’ve had the special privilege of being an invited lecturer to both the 1st and the most recent (15th) annual Molecular Education and Research Consortium in Undergraduate Computational chemistRY. More trippingly-off-the-tongue known as “The MERCURY Conference”. And, I have to say, I just love this conference! Let me offer a few reasons — and even if you have no interest in Computational Chemistry, perhaps some nuggets on what makes for a great undergraduate conference in general will emerge and prove inspiring.
“…even if you have no interest in Computational Chemistry, perhaps some nuggets on what makes for a great undergraduate conference in general will emerge and prove inspiring.
So, MERCURY was originally conceived by George Shields (now Provost Shields, of Furman University) together with an energetic group of primarily younger PUI faculty scattered around the mostly Northeast, mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. Primarily younger perhaps mostly because the field of Computational Chemistry itself has only fairly recently penetrated into PUIs in a major way. The original group wrote a successful proposal to NSF (which continues to be funded lo these many years later) for computational resources that would be available to multiple research groups and formed the idea of an annual conference for their students to interact and present results in a professional fashion. For me, a personal thrill is that some of my former graduate students are now participating faculty, so I get to see what a difference they’re making and bask in grandfatherly pride.
Wow. The MERCURY students. What an amazing bunch. So, listen, let’s be honest. I am not a PUI faculty member — I’m an R1 type (and still clinging to the old Carnegie classifications, thank you very much). So, I’ve got some mercenary interests when I go to an undergrad conference: I want to lock-up the best and brightest for Minnesota, of course! And I’ve got crazy high standards, so I’d never have done a second MERCURY iteration if I didn’t know of the amazing caliber of the participants (79 this
year!) Every student was enthusiastic (which surely reflects great mentoring by their advisors, of course), attentive, inquisitive, and professional. Each had to give a 1-minute overview of a poster and then staff that poster during one of two 75-minute poster sessions, and they took it very seriously. The poster session itself was an interesting mix since the younger crowd ranged from high-school students to rising college seniors. I heard some top-caliber science and I heard some things just getting off the ground, but what impressed me most was how invested everyone was in their project. Really inspiring. And, yes, I did get everyone’s email address, thank you very much…
I heard some top-caliber science and I heard some things just getting off the ground, but what impressed me most was how invested everyone was in their project. Really inspiring.
Those 79 students were made up of 43 women and 36 men (that’s my assessment alone — certainly some might not have chosen to be binary-classified, but I don’t have more fine-grained, self-reported demographics). Of the women, 15 were from historically underrepresented ethnic groups and of the men, 19 were (again, my assessment alone, and it obviously gets harder to make these sorts of ethnicity calls). Without getting bogged down in pigeon-holing anyone, what I want to emphasize is the degree to which I found this breadth of participation particularly inspiring as well. My own Department tries hard to foster a climate that values and supports diversity, and seeing it so well represented in this crop of “next-generation” scientists gave me real hope that we’re making progress on what’s been a long, thorny challenge for Chemistry, and indeed for science and engineering in general. Again, I have to salute the MERCURY faculty who’ve done such a fabulous job attracting so broad an array of students to do research with them.
We plenary speakers (6 of us), from academia, industry (Merck), and government labs (NIH), were asked to give pretty cutting-edge talks. Two of us, myself included, were also asked to spend some time teaching fundamentals. Thus, I got asked to teach computational quantum chemistry in the space of about 30 minutes, and talk about my research for the remaining 30. I love a challenge like that, and fortunately I’ve got a YouTube Channel with quite a few hours of video that I was able to send out ahead of time for those brave souls eager either to prepare or to follow up. But, what I particularly liked was the charge given to the students at the beginning, which was along the lines of, “Don’t expect to understand everything, but do your best to follow, and next time, you’ll be that much better informed.” (I noted that that advice remains solid even for us faculty members entering our more advanced years…)
Sense of Community
It wasn’t just lectures, it wasn’t just posters, it wasn’t just a workshop that many of the undergrads participated in the day before the lectures began. It was also obvious camaraderie amongst the participating faculty from their many institutions. It was an outdoor barbecue to kick things off. It was karaoke after the day’s activities were done. It was a sense of shared optimism and excitement about being researchers pushing back the frontiers of the unknown, even if very newly embarked researchers in many instances.
It wasn’t just lectures, it wasn’t just posters, it wasn’t just a workshop …It was also obvious camaraderie amongst the participating faculty from their many institutions.
OK, I’ve probably already hit the tl;dr point, so I’ll close by noting that I think my PUI colleagues who’ve made MERCURY into what it is are simply heroes. They’ve obviously done so. much. work. The great news is: as far as I could tell, their students think they’re heroes, too, and those same students are destined to go on to do great things, and to talk about what a difference those faculty — those teachers — made in their lives. PUI ROI? #Jackpot
~ Dr. Chris Cramer is the Distinguished McKnight University Professor, University Teaching Professor, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota. His research group develops, codes, and applies novel classical and quantum mechanical methodologies to model chemical structures, properties, and reactivities.