Blog

As part of our year-long programming, ABRCMS will periodically publish blog posts of interest to students, faculty, and other individuals associated with ABRCMS.

Engaging Diverse Trainees in Undergraduate Research

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The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) is one of the largest expositions of URM student research. ABRCMS Online offers webinars on working with URM research students for faculty and career scientists. Dr. Amanda Marie James is a featured speaker in a webinar entitled, “Engaging Diverse Student Populations in Undergraduate Research”. The next webinar will be “Evidence-Based Strategies to Improve Nontraditional Student Performance in STEM” on December 3, 2019.
 
There are many benefits to mentored research experiences for students, like enhanced science identity, sense of belonging and self-efficacy, research productivity and higher career satisfaction. It is important to ensure that these benefits extend equally to everyone. With an emphasis on diversifying the scientific workforce, it is imperative to define and implement effective methods to engage diverse trainees in research careers.
 
Dr. Amanda Marie James is the Chief Diversity Officer and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement at the James T. Laney School of Graduate Studies at Emory University. Dr. James is charged with creating and strengthening an inclusive, respectful and intellectually challenging environment for all research trainees. Dr. James explains her approach to working with diverse trainees and her advice for faculty engaged with diverse trainees in research programs. 
 
How has your personal and scientific experience helped shape the way you approach diversity and inclusion?
This is a passionate subject for me. I did my undergraduate degree at a Historically Black College and my graduate studies at a predominantly white institution (PWI), followed by postdoctoral studies at a PWI and had an experience at a small liberal arts college. From these experiences, I’ve seen the best way to move about in those worlds. My familiarity with the journey has been priceless to help facilitate the acclimation of diverse trainees and their navigation of a large university and global city. 
 
The main focus of my work is providing equity through opportunities for our scholars and faculty so they can fully engage in their work and begin self-discovery to achieve both personal and professional growth. Taking responsibility for inclusive outreach and ensuring environments where all can do their best work is essential to achieving the educational benefits of diversity. Education is transformative - and to quote, Marian Wright Edelman: “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and the world better than you found it.”
 
What are some common challenges faced by diverse undergraduate students when pursuing research experiences?
The biggest issue that I’ve found among our diverse scholars is finding the opportunities. You don't know how to navigate the world, and your progression in the sciences is largely based on acquiring experiences along the way. Diverse trainees are sometimes reluctant to explore things if they don’t see themselves in that area. That’s why it is important for research experiences to be familiar with the needs of diverse trainees.
 
How do you communicate with principal investigators (PIs) about working with diverse students?
This can be one of the most difficult parts about coordinating research experiences. It’s important to note that trainees are a blank canvas. Diverse trainees can be molded into the type of scientists that you want them to be, but it is going to take some patience, intentional mentoring and understanding of their perspective. 
 
With faculty, you can teach them best practices, however I find it most effective to appeal to their ego and sense of accomplishment. These diverse trainees really want to be here and this is there chance to work with some of the best and brightest scientific minds. Most faculty love what they do, and working with a prospective bright diverse trainee is very appealing to them.
 
How did your institution begin developing programs to promote undergraduate research for diverse students?
With our programs for diverse scholars, we were intentional about how we rolled out the program and who we recruited to be research mentors. It was important that individuals worked with diverse trainees in the past couple of years. This sets a precedent of success working with diverse trainees that can be used as a template for additional faculty to follow. Providing a model for effective engagement of diverse trainees is just as important as recruiting them into your program.
 
Another thing that I’ve done in designing a research program for diverse trainees is use “reverse engineering”. I determined what factors the current graduate students and faculty wanted incoming scholars to have and designed a program that fit those needs. This way, we were able to design a tailored experience that was going to give the scholars the tools they need to be successful.
 
Beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next big change in research experiences for diverse undergraduates?
As we begin to roll out more programs focused on diverse trainees, transdisciplinary studies will be more obvious for undergraduates. While this focus has been more prominent at the graduate and professional studies levels, it is not as obvious at the undergraduate level. This will require more collaborative approaches to supporting the needs of diverse trainees and will likely involve support at every level of the program. I do believe that the largest wave of programs of this nature will be from the smaller liberal arts and research active institutions, rather than the research intensive institutions. 
 
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Tips for Writing Your First Conference Abstract

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Communicating your research is an important part of being a scientist. While submitting an abstract to a national conference can seem overwhelming, it is one of the best ways to communicate your science and get your research in front of a large audience.

ASM education specialist, Dr. Christopher Skipwith, will provide students with tips on writing an abstract during the “Writing a Competitive Abstract” webinar from Aug. 5-8, 2019. Here are a few of his best practices to prepare your first abstract for a scientific conference.

Read the Instructions

Although this may be obvious, many times, abstracts are rejected because they are missing key components. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the submission requirements before starting your abstract.

Understand the Target Audience

Who will be reading your abstract? Whether you are submitting to a field-specific or general conference, make sure the language you use can be easily understood by your target audience. Field-specific language may be appropriate for specialized conferences, however plain language must be used for conferences that cover a wide range of fields.

When using acronyms, remember to always provide the full phrase on the first mention accompanied by the acronym in parenthesis.

Clearly State the Hypothesis/Statement of Purpose

Not every project has a hypothesis, but all projects have a purpose. Figure out the research questions you are trying to answer and include the hypothesis or purpose of your research in the abstract. It is imperative to communicate your hypothesis/statement of purpose clearly so the reader can get a better context of your research goals and understand the importance of your research.

Tie Results and Conclusions Back to the Hypothesis/Statement of Purpose

After you have written your results and conclusions, go back to your hypothesis/statement of purpose. Do the results and conclusions clearly support your research purpose? What did the results say about your hypothesis? Make sure the links between these components are obvious to the reader.

Review, Then Review Again

Reread your abstract against a print out of the abstract guidelines. As you go through, check off each guideline to ensure your abstract is complete. Remember that even if it has all the requirements, a poorly written abstract will not be accepted. Then have multiple people, including your Principal Investigator, read it over. Incorporate their feedback to ensure a strong submission.

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How a Postdoctoral Fellow Gives Back to ABRCMS

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In 2008 as an undergraduate senior, Dr. Victor Ocasio Ramirez, won a presentation award at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). Ten years later he attended ABRCMS again to provide valuable mentorship to students through the Judge Travel Award. Dr. Ocasio Ramirez explains how he became interested in science as an undergraduate, his current research as a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, and why attending ABRCMS was a gratifying experience.

Tell me about your background.
I am originally from a small town in Puerto Rico, where I studied Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. I developed an interest in basic science, specifically microbiology. In 2014, I obtained my Ph.D. in molecular microbiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Currently, I am a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University working in host pathogen interactions.

What first made you interested in science?
As a second-year undergraduate student, I had the rare opportunity to conduct research with Dr. Joseph Bonaventura from Duke University studying the antimicrobial properties of the plantain plant. I got to travel to different parts of Puerto Rico to collect diverse plantain samples for my experiments. A year later, I joined a plant biotechnology laboratory where I studied gene expression profiles in transgenic Cassava plants using emerging qRT-PCR technology. Both of these experiences were fundamental in cementing my passion for science.

What is your current research about?
My research involves the study of host microbe interactions. More specifically, how pathogenic bacteria have evolved to evade the immune response and grow in what it seems to be a hostile environment. Chlamydia trachomatis is a sexually transmitted pathogen that contains more than a hundred proteins predicted to be secreted to the host. These effector proteins help Chlamydia establish its intracellular lifestyle, elude the immune response and take control of many host cellular processes. I employ a combination of genetics, biochemistry and cell biology methods to characterize the function of these secreted effectors.

How were your experiences with ABRCMS both as a student and judge?
Both of these experiences were different for me because I had very different perspectives each time I went. As an attendee in 2008, I was an eager senior undergraduate student looking for the next step in my academic career, graduate school. I remember walking up and down tirelessly through the aisles looking at the booths of different universities. At this point, I was trying to decide which institution would make me feel welcomed as an underrepresented minority, but also be a great fit for me academically. In 2018 as a judge, I was able to share the experiences of what it is like to earn a Ph.D. I walked tirelessly up and down the aisles of posters talking to students, giving advice and encouraging them to do the same thing I did ten years ago.

Why should someone consider being a judge at ABRCMS?
Being a judge at ABRCMS is much more than scoring presentations. You get to meet a myriad of students from different backgrounds that are excited and passionate about science. But some of them lack the experience or don’t know what to do next. As a judge, you have the opportunity to interact with all of these students and to learn about their background and give them advice based on your personal experiences. This was one of the most gratifying experiences I had in 2018.

What advice do you have for students considering submitting an abstract to the conference?
Have a clear hypothesis of your project or model and share the abstract with your peers and mentor. If they can understand your research project from the abstract alone, then you’ve written an abstract where the points come across clearly.

How has your ASM membership impacted your career?
As an ASM member, I’ve attended various conferences like ABRCMS and ASM Microbe where I presented my research and networked with colleagues. Also, in 2018 I participated in the Best Practices in Curriculum Design, Teaching and Assessment webinar, which showed me a different aspect of academia and made me an attractive candidate for the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program at Duke in 2018-2019. I taught as an adjunct professor at Elon University for one semester and put into practice many of the concepts I learned in the ASM webinar. Overall, since becoming an ASM member, I’ve had many opportunities to improve my career, get access to a wide network of scientists and see the impact of the work I am doing.


ABRCMS 2019 will be held November 13-16 in Anaheim, California. Apply for funds to attend the conference as a judge.

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ABRCMS Hurricane Relief

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Local vision, international mobilization: first steps in restoring Puerto Rico's scientific community after Hurricane Maria

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico beginning on September 20, 2017 was catastrophic. While stories of the storm's lingering effects have been well-publicized, the damage to Puerto Rico's scientific community has been largely underreported.

Classes for newly returned students in Puerto Rico were canceled as a result of the storm and its devastating aftermath. Many campus facilities were either destroyed outright or damaged beyond immediate repair. This included not only buildings but also laboratories and other facilities used by scientists ranging from undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students to professors.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to recover the samples and data that were destroyed by the storm, some of which represented over a decade of work. However, the scientific community banded together to minimize the amount of time these scientists would lose continuing or, in some cases, restarting their work. Under the direction of Dr. Juan S.Ramirez Lugo, President of the Caribbean Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a plenary speaker at the 2018 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), a funding program was created to support these scientists through grants and financial aid. AAAS was joined by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT) and Ciencia Puerto Rico in fundraising for and publicizing this important effort. Through this program, funds were available for temporary relocation to continue research as well as the restoration of facilities.

Critical to the success of this project were the over 450 offers of laboratory space and facilities—as well as personal accommodations—from universities, hospitals, and private companies, as well as a handful of individuals. This outreach was not only from the Puerto Rican scientific diaspora but fellow scientists all over the United States as well as France, Italy, and Hong Kong.

As inspiring as these efforts are, they are ultimately temporary solutions. Without repairs to or reconstruction of scientific facilities, many Puerto Rican scientists will find the challenges to continuing their work in Puerto Rico insurmountable. Those who want to remain in the field may have to permanently relocate, as many already have, and others may be forced to end their studies or careers entirely. Given that many residents of the island still lack power, rebuilding is not likely to begin in the short term. Continuing efforts, as well as an international commitment to this community, will be required in the meantime.

The 2018 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students is proud to present Dr. Ramirez Lugo as one of our plenary speakers on November 16.

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What Lies Beneath—Data Preparation and Interpretation

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Research in the biomedical sciences has become increasingly reliant on large data sets to provide meaningful experimental validation. However, dealing with large data sets presents challenges that are distinct from those experienced by most biomedical researchers doing data evaluation, processing, and presentation. How do we begin to make sense of these expansive data sets while ensuring statistical quality and experimental validity?

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