An Eye-Opening Experience

December 12, 2014

Amanda Nagy

Sonia Shah with a screen showing the cover of her book, The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years
Author and investigative science journalist Sonia Shah ’90 was a keynote speaker at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.
Photo credit: Alison Williams

Three science students received honors for their presentations at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in November.

A team of seven attended the conference in San Antonio, Texas, where they gained exposure to a program of scientific sessions, professional development workshops, student oral and poster presentations, and talks by leading scientists. One of the featured speakers was Sonia Shah ’90, an investigative science and health journalist, who spoke about how poverty, war, and environmental disruption led to the widespread Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Marisa Aikins, a senior physics major, and Anne Chege, a junior biochemistry major, took home prizes for their poster presentations in biophysics and neuroscience, respectively; junior biochemistry major Edmund Korely won the oral competition for presenting the neurotoxicology research he conducted with Assistant Professor Gunnar Kwakye last summer.

The Oberlin team also included Hudson Bailey, Gifty Dominah, and Michelle Johnson, all senior neuroscience majors, and Gabriel Moore, senior biology major.

This is the second year Oberlin has attended the ABRCMS, which is one of the largest professional conferences for underrepresented minority students who are pursuing advanced training in STEM fields. “Both this year and last year, our students have fared incredibly well at ABRCMS—in the number of prizes won, how their presentations were received in general, and what a valuable experience it was for the students,” says Marcelo Vinces, director of Oberlin’s Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR).

Vinces says students benefit in ways beyond the practical experience of presenting their work. “Students meet representatives from graduate and professional schools who are there to recruit students. They attend professional development sessions. And in addition to the plenary and keynote talks, there are numerous talks across many disciplines in science, math and engineering that the students were able to attend. I even witnessed our students asking questions at these scientific sessions, which is a great experience. Finally, but not least, it is a rare opportunity to see such a large gathering of scientists and engineers of color. It is eye-opening and in many ways affirming. It's why I started attending conferences like these when I was a graduate student.”

Vinces says a focus group has been working on ways to support Oberlin’s science students of color. The focus group has proposed several ideas: the formation of a peer-mentoring group; creation of a residence hall for science majors, most likely in Afrikan Heritage House; and a pre-matriculation bridge program for incoming students from underrepresented minority students in the sciences.

Korley, who won the oral presentation, came to Oberlin with ambitions of working in medicine. He says the experience helped him re-evaluate and reaffirm his career goals. “Upon matriculating at Oberlin, a crux I often thought about was that a physician heals one person at a time, while a researcher has the opportunity to heal the world. Going to ABRCMS, a microcosm of outstanding biomedical researchers, has definitely cemented my interest in a research career. The exciting work of researchers I met working on translational genomics and other areas of research with a clinical component has especially drawn my interest. The field is nearing its potential to create powerful, accessible, and preventative medicine for all.”

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