Which conference should I bring (or send) my students to?

We are just under 4 weeks out from the submission deadine to NCUR, so we are interrupting our regularly scheduled programming on funding sources to bring you this piece by Dr. Jim Phillips on the National Conference for Undergraduate Research. If you are looking for the second half of Dr. Joe Provost’s insights on the NIH-R15, come back next week too!


The question of “where to publish my work?” is one I have often heard from junior colleagues, as well as one I still ask myself and others. However, it is much less often that I hear questions about what meeting one should attend, especially in regard to what may offer the best experience for students.

“…if there is one mistake I made early on, it was presuming that, as a PI, I would just comfortably settle into the community I thrived in as a graduate student, and that my students would benefit as I did.

Though it may not appear so at first glance, this is a rather complex issue that is worthy of some careful consideration for those of us engaged in research with undergraduates. And, if there is one mistake I made early on, it was presuming that, as a PI, I would just comfortably settle into the community I thrived in as a graduate student, and that my students would benefit as I did. In fact, after my first few years in a tenure track position, I no longer felt at home at my “go-to” meeting, perhaps due to a professional identity crisis, or simply because that community had not yet evolved to the point where undergraduate research was truly valued. In turn, there was a span of a few years that I traveled very little. (Balancing domestic and professional demands may have also been a factor.)

It is also fair to say that in recent years my professional priorities shifted from advancing my research career to providing an optimal student development experience.

Nevertheless, over this latter third of my academic career, I have intentionally re-engaged my professional travel schedule, and have taken the opportunity to explore a variety of different meetings. Though even at this point, my overall travel schedule still falls well short of others I know. It is also fair to say that in recent years my professional priorities shifted from advancing my research career to providing an optimal student development experience. Another factor that has motivated me to more carefully consider the issue at hand here, is that I have been serving on the oversight committee for NCUR, and part of a subgroup that has been reviewing the overall mission and impact of NCUR. In turn, I have been candidly discussing the pros and cons of NCUR versus other possible venue options with fellow CUR members. There is a diverse array of perspective to say the least!

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NCUR 2017 is at the University of Memphis

My hope for this blog entry is to share some of those collective observations and perspectives, and potentially spark further dialog within the CUR chemistry community as to what sort of conference experience best serves our students, and/or balances that with our own professional development goals.

National Meetings for major Professional Organizations

The top of the food chain: National disciplinary meetings are exciting, usually held in attractive places that most people want to travel to, and offer a great many opportunities for both PI’s and students. The downside is simply that these are “high-background” environments, and it can be tough to avoid invisibility, let alone stand out. Nonetheless, the ACS National meeting is the premier venue for the PI to showcase their work to the best and brightest chemists, and to network with such individuals. Early-career faculty trying to impress tenure committees and grant proposal reviewers need to be mindful of “intellectual inertia”, and presentations at the ACS national meeting are as high-impact as it gets. This is the place to get your name, as a PI, established in the discipline, if you can stand out. And, ACS meeting presentations are indexed by most scholarly databases, e.g. Web of Knowledge.

“For certain, undergraduate students interested in pursuing a PhD will be well served by experiencing a major, national meeting, and gaining exposure to the leaders in the field(s)…”

Photo Feb 21, 9 47 33 PMFor certain, undergraduate students interested in pursuing a PhD will be well served by experiencing a major, national meeting, and gaining exposure to the leaders in the field(s) that they are interested in. And, those interested in industrial careers can attend resume workshops at the ACS meetings, and even do mock interviews with real professionals in the field.

I would also plug the expositions – arguably my favorite part of the ACS meetings, because it is my primary exposure to the commercial side of the chemistry enterprise (and the sales people are often quite sociable). Accordingly, the exposition is also a good place for students to acquaint themselves with career directions for chemists that they may otherwise lack awareness of (and our ACS Student Affiliate usually stocks up on “swag” for door prizes at our annual awards banquet).

neurosciencemeeting-1024x640The downside of these major, national meetings is that it is easy to get completely lost in the shuffle; the poster sessions are huge, and in my experience the community is often divided by into various sub-disciplines. Granted, some of these sub-communities offer the intimacy that the large national meeting lacks as-a-whole. In any event, in some instances, your students might not see much attention at their poster, and it is unlikely they’ll be giving a talk. Once I gave poster in San Francisco that had exactly one visitor in a two-hour period. Also, your students may not be able to get near those “idols” in their present research field, and they may be interested in a different research field for graduate school, which makes mentor-assisted networking opportunities less likely. Might I add that it is quite expensive to take a group of students to one of these get-togethers.

So in the end, while I have had great experiences at ACS meetings, as have my students, it has not always been the most effective student development exercise, especially for those that are not the “cut-out-of-the-mold” future PhD’s. But, students that will be chemical professionals really do benefit from attending these meetings.

NCUR: The National Conference on Undergraduate Research

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University of Utah student Nancy Ibarra presents at NCUR 2016

NCUR is, in every respect, everything that the ACS is not. In NCUR, we have a fully interdisciplinary, national conference devoted entirely to undergraduate research. As such, it is not a stellar venue for the PI to promote their intellectual contributions to the discipline, and in all honesty, much of the chemistry presented at NCUR lacks the impact that one is likely to see at an ACS or ASBMB meeting. Also, there will not be high concentrations of chemistry faculty with whom you can discuss detection limits, percent yields, or spectral resolution.

Then what is the point?

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University of Wisconsin – Stout students at the NCUR 2016 meeting in Asheville, NC

First of all, NCUR is not about you the faculty member, or how wonderful your work is (at least in terms of its raw intellectual content). It is about students, their development through research, and providing them a low-pressure, constructive environment within which to present it. At NCUR, students are doing the networking, and engaging in the professional dialog, and for the most part, faculty get out of the way and let that happen. I do visit many posters, and attend talks (your experienced students certainly can give talks at NCUR), but I particularly enjoy visiting posters outside chemistry. I still remember being a well-rounded student at a liberal arts college, and it’s great to recover some of that intellectual energy. Nonetheless, the faculty at NCUR will not be putting your students on the spot and intimidating them – it is a safe and friendly environment. So, you can simply send them, especially if your institution typically sends a cohort to NCUR. You do not need to be there to babysit them and protect them from Professor X that is going to grill them on your work (like you might see at ACS).

NCUR is not about you the faculty member, or how wonderful your work is…It is about students, their development through research, and providing them a low-pressure, constructive environment within which to present it.

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NCUR 2016 – Asheville, NC

So, while the quality of the work itself may not be as high at the NCUR meeting, students are learning a great deal, and most of all, they are learning how to learn in a conference setting. Learning from within the conference settings is challenging; even more so if they jump straight into the big-time by attending an ACS for their first big conference. Moreover, I find these days an increasingly smaller fraction of my students are future chemistry PhD’s; most are exploring an ever increasingly diverse array of career options (e.g., my two most recent students that are in PhD programs are in Food Science and Physical Anthropology). In this regard, I’ll mention that the NCUR Graduate School Fair attracts representatives from a broad array of graduate programs spread over a variety of disciplinary areas, programs I could never advise my students on…because, I’m a chemist.

When job recruiters attend NCUR (which happened at least one meeting I attended), they come because they believe in what we do; they value the intellectual growth that undergraduate research provides students. Not just the technical skills, but the ability to tackle big open ended questions via systematic inquiry – these skills transcend disciplinary boundaries and are valued by employers.

What about the outcomes?

NCUR survey data clearly show that students who have attended both NCUR and a disciplinary conference indicate, by a substantial margin, they benefited more from NCUR. Granted, that might just mean that NCUR is just “more fun,” but is that bad? At some point we must acknowledge the validity of what they think is good for them, even if we have a more experienced perspective.

At UWEC, we (as an institution) send roughly 40 presenters each year, and they travel together, learn about each other’s work across a wide array if disciplines, and support each other in this experience. The intellectual exchanges at NCUR usually challenge students to present their work to people in other fields – non-specialists – a skill that we scientists are rarely praised for. Again, this is complimentary to the skill set needed to succeed at a disciplinary conference.

So, even if the intellectual content is less rigorous than at the ACS or ASBMB meeting, there are clear developmental benefits for students.

What do I get out of the NCUR meeting?

research-ncur-042016-homepageTalking directly to NCUR student presenters about their research experiences is has helped me mentor more effectively, and it gives me an external perspective on institution-wide practices. Talking to faculty from other institutions also informs me about the broader undergraduate research enterprise and offers an opportunity to share innovative approaches and ideas (e.g. embedding research into a course). These conversations need not take place with chemists. There are a a few of so-called FAN (Faculty Administrator Network) sessions to facilitate this transfer of ideas, so as to keep the main focus of the meeting on student presentations. In addition, at last years’ NCUR, there were often great conversations taking place in the “mentor lounge”, sort of the “teachers lounge of NCUR”. The meeting is so overrun with students having a designated space for us faculty was fantastic! What I find most interesting at this point in my career, however, is keeping track of what institutions participate, and what that says about the pedagogical value an institution places on undergraduate research. Recently, the NCUR oversight committee recognized  institutions with a large historic participation in NCUR by an advertisement in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What I find most interesting at this point in my career…is keeping track of what institutions participate, and what that says about the pedagogical value an institution places on undergraduate research.

The notable absence at NCUR, ironically, is participation by many long-term CUR member schools. So let me be blunt here: If you are a faculty member at a CUR member institution that has not yet embraced the merits of NCUR (i.e., post-merger) – give it a try!

If you have the right group of students at the right stage of their career, send a group from across a wide array of disciplines from your institution, and better yet, offer to chaperone them and see first-hand how they benefit from this low-pressure experience. You can take your future PhD chemists to the ACS the following year, and they will be better prepared for that experience having cut their teeth at NCUR.  I usually try to get my students to both of these types of meetings before they graduate.

Other undergraduate focused meetings?

While I have laid out the two extremes in terms of national meetings above, there are many other options. The ACS regional meetings offer some of the benefits of the national meeting in a small environment in which your undergraduates will not be completely overshadowed. Often there are a handful of faculty from nearby PhD institutions eager to connect with you and your students, as well as a handful of PUI faculty with whom you can exchange valuable ideas with. Alas, the meeting in my home region (Great Lakes) has been essentially defunct for several years. (I’d be willing to enter a conversation about re-energizing it.)

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In addition to regional undergraduate research conferences, essentially regional versions of NCUR, with which I have little experience, there are now a few examples of focused symposia geared to undergraduate researchers. The meeting I am most familiar with is the MERCURY conference. (MERCURY is a consortium of PI’s from undergraduate schools engaged in computational chemistry research, and see Chris Cramer’s blog on the most recent meeting.) The MERCURY meeting has been the best overall learning experience that I have taken my students to, and they love it. In this case,  you essentially have a Gordon Conference for undergraduates. Take the friendly, constructive, student-centered environment of NCUR, the intellectual rigor of a focused session at an ACS meeting, and serve it up to small group of students (~100) and faculty (~20). Add some speakers that are leaders and role models in the field, have them gear their presentations to the target audience, and make them accessible and the poster session and social gatherings. That is a truly special set of circumstances.

I presume there are meetings like this in other sub-fields, but if not, there should be. Maybe this is not ideal for students seeking opportunities in other fields, at least in terms of fostering their long-term development, but these have been intense and powerful experiences for my students. They have returned more engaged in our work, they are armed with specific input and feedback about their projects (often from their peers), and they have made bona fide professional connections with students at other schools. Wow!

In the end, what’s best?

I hope you see there is no blanket answer. Your career stage and personal career agenda are certainly factors. But perhaps, once you are past the “impress the tenure committee as much as possible” stage of your career, you will broadly consider the benefits that each distinct type of meeting may offer, and explore all the options. (Yes, including NCUR.)


The deadline for Abstract submissions to NCUR in December 2 – visit http://www.cur.org/ncur_2017/ for more information.


Phillips_James_2015Dr. Jim Phillips is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin – Eu Claire where his research with undergraduates is to identify and characterize complexes (associations of two otherwise stable molecules) that are apt to undergo substantial changes in structure in response to a change in their chemical environment. Jim is also a member of CUR, a councilor for the Chemistry Division, and a representative of the NCUR oversight committee.

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