18th Annual Whitman Undergraduate Conference highlights student achievement
This week, more than 150 students shared their work at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference, a yearly event dedicated to showcasing interdisciplinary research and creativity across campus.
Classes are cancelled as students, faculty and staff members swap their regular schedules for a full day of lectures, musical performances, special exhibitions and a poster session, most of which are grouped by theme and moderated by student presenters.
"The undergraduate conference reminds me of the old grad school jest about being a professional student," said Director of Fellowships and Grants Keith Raether, who heads the conference organizing committee. "Student learning is a lifelong exhilaration; the only prerequisite is curiosity. Today, faculty and staff get to be the students."
With subcategories like "Composer's Studio," "Environmental Impacts," "Women's Voices" and "Secrets of the Deep," the original research featured in the conference stems from students' coursework, theses, off-campus studies, internships and independent projects.
"The whole experience highlights the diverse interests, creativity and intellect on campus, and I always find it to be both humbling and stimulating," said Jeremy Nolan '16.
A biology and Spanish major, he was among the select few students who presented twice, with a talk on aesthetic representations of autism in Miguel Gallardo's graphic novels as well as a poster illustrating the physiological response of plant life to elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Suzy Xu '16 also participated in the early afternoon poster session, outlining some of the research she conducted for her environmental chemistry thesis.
"I wanted to take advantage of the undergraduate conference to equip myself with skills in communicating my research to a broader audience," Xu said. "I love to share my ideas and passion with other people and receive challenging questions. These questions help me rethink my arguments, and give me a deeper understanding of my subject." Biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology major Cat Mulanax '16 said she likewise benefited from audience feedback during her talk, "Effects of Healthcare Service Gap on Residents (Age 65 and Older) of Marin County, California."
"I was able to share my research with so many members of the Whitman community about a less commonly-known but rampant issue that affects all of us today: unequal access to quality health care," she said.
Raether, who attends the conference every year, said there is no limit to what student scholarship and creativity can accomplish in almost any subject imaginable.
"What did I learn today? That mobile phones are a private room for students in Japan. That more than 90 percent of Yemeni women report sexual harassment. That some bumblebees are like new-wave safecrackers when they're drilling for nectar. And that we should be skeptical of syllogisms about Donald Trump and hair."
Recent Goldwater Scholarship recipient Nina Finley '17, a biology and environmental studies major, spoke about sea star wasting disease and the effects of ocean acidification on native Puget Sound species. Last year, she completed a poster on sculpin jaw functional morphology—or the evolutionary relationship of anatomical form to behavior among a certain flat-headed fish, in layman's terms.
"I'd previously presented both of those topics at professional scientific meetings, so it was fun to tweak my focus to be accessible and engaging to a broad audience of peers," Finley said.
She added, "My favorite part of this year's conference was watching a first-year student's three-part musical composition based on bird species... I am blown away by what people can do."