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Murdock Conference Gives Students Valuable Opportunity to Present Research

By Savannah Tranchell

A group photo of students who participated in the 2019 Murdock conference.

Each semester, dozens of students at Whitman College work closely with faculty mentors in labs and classrooms across the campus. These collaborations often result in research papers, journal articles, capstone projects for graduating seniors, and presentations at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference.

This fall, nearly two dozen science students had the opportunity to share their research projects with other scientists and students at the 28th annual Murdock College Science Research Program Conference in Vancouver, Washington.

Opportunities to present research are almost as critical to students as the chance to conduct the research itself.

"Presenting scientific research at meetings is a critical way that scientists share information, build professional networks, and stay informed about the latest results in their field of study," said Assistant Professor Brit Moss, who teaches biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) at Whitman. Moss along with biology Assistant Professor Michael Coronado organized the trip to the conference. "This meeting is a unique opportunity for Whitman students to do this with peers from around the Pacific Northwest and to develop communication skills that will benefit them during their time at Whitman and beyond."

Whitman students and faculty have participated in the Murdock conference for years, and many projects at the college are funded by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. During last year's conference, physics Associate Professor Moira Gresham received the Lynwood W. Swanson Promise for Scientific Research Award.

This year, James Bent '21, a BBMB major from North Bend, Washington, took home top honors in the Murdock Poster Prize for biochemistry with his poster presentation titled "Quantitative NMR Analysis Reveals New Trends in Substrate Specificity of Benzoate Dioxygenase."

"I was super grateful and ecstatic because I was finally able to showcase the results of my work and the prize, to me, meant that I had conveyed both my results and enthusiasm in a very clear and focused way," Bent said.

Bent conducted his research in partnership with Assistant Professor Jon Collins. Bent's research collaboration with Collins was funded in part by the Louis B. Perry Summer Research Endowment. Bent and fellow BBMB major Zane Boyer '21 collaborated with Collins to synthesize important organic molecules using a combination of biocatalytic reactions and traditional organic transformations.

"Anytime that we win a prize, you know you did something to stand out among a grouping of excellent research," said Collins, who participated as a judge at this year's conference.

This year's conference was themed "Collaboration - A Key to Success in Undergraduate Research." Along with Collins, Moss and Coronado, and the 22 students, chemistry Assistant Professor Mark Hendricks also attended.

"I think participating in the conference was an important experience for me because it allowed me to go look at the work of other laboratories in the Pacific Northwest and gather new ideas for things that I might like to elaborate on in my work here in the Collins lab or perhaps in graduate school," Bent said. "It was interesting to make critiques about people's posters or methods but also a ton of fun to share in the collective enthusiasm of hundreds of young scientists."

The research presented by Whitman students ranged in topic from studies of the biochemical auxin in corn, to dark matter and black holes, to science involving fluoride and calcium ion exchanges and dental health.

The conference is so popular, the college allows only one student per science laboratory to attend. Attending the conference is free, as the Murdock Trust covers the majority of the expenses. Whitman College covers the rest.

"There's a vibrant research culture here at Whitman, and the strong representation that we have at this conference really broadly represents that," Collins said.

Published on Dec 3, 2019
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