Building a conference from scratch is no easy feat, especially for a group of Virginia Tech students who have full class schedules. However, 12 students, led by senior Ali Toloczko, are launching the first Mid-Atlantic Undergraduate Research Conference in Blacksburg this weekend.

Toloczko, a senior majoring in chemical engineering and clinical neuroscience, is the organizer and brainchild for this conference, which will involve students discussing their research and special speakers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It is planned for March 23 and 24 at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), and it is the first regional STEM undergraduate conference hosted by Virginia Tech.

“I got the inspiration after I attended a conference at Harvard,” Toloczko said. “After presenting [my research], I realized that there was a lot more to lab and a lot more to research then just going in to work on your experiment every day.”

Toloczko initially proposed the conference idea to friends, and they created an overarching timeline to hit important goals. From there, they built the STEM Research Conference Commission, a team of students from various disciplines. They also met with Keri Swaby, the coordinator for undergraduate research at Virginia Tech, who helped them plan and promote the conference.

Toloczko and the team divided the work to reach out to possible speakers and sponsors for the event. The conference planning took about a year. Thirty-six universities are attending.

The key speakers at the conference include Kate Biberdorf, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at University of Tennessee Austin. She is known for breaking stereotypes of women in chemistry and research. Another speaker, Daniel Andruczyk, assistant research professor at the Center for Plasma-Material Interactions at the University of Illinois, will be discussing his plasma physics and fusion research.

Others include a research biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, an associate dean for biomedical affairs and research at VCOM, a professor of biomedicine at VCOM, and the vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs at Virginia Tech. Each of the speakers will touch on subjects regarding STEM and their experience in their field.

On Saturday, March 23, the conference will go from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 24, the conference will go from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Toloczko and her team, which includes six seniors, are excited to see their hard work come together. The STEM Research Conference Commission is set up in a way that when the seniors graduate, the next six fill their spots as they welcome a new group. This system allows for Virginia Tech students to plan a conference before graduation.

“I want them to walk away with the same inspiration that I walked away from after leaving Harvard,” said Toloczko, who already has landed a job as an engineer at ALL4 Environmental Consulting and Air Quality Services in Chantilly, Virginia, after graduation. “Though a project might seem ginormous, if you feel like it's going to make an impact on where you are, you shouldn’t let the size of an obstacle interfere with your motivation.”

Written by Haley Cummings