Student life has transformed dramatically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped students from planning and hosting the Mid-Atlantic Undergraduate Research Conference (MAURC). This annual undergraduate research conference is organized by undergraduate students at Virginia Tech and will be held virtually this year from March 25-27.

MAURC will consist of recorded poster presentations by undergraduate researchers representing 31 universities hosted on the virtual conference site. The range of students participating extends beyond the mid-Atlantic region and includes such states as Hawaii, California, Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama. Undergraduate researchers will also have the opportunity to participate in career and professional development panels and networking events. Participants will prerecord their presentation, and a few students will be selected to present their work synchronously on one of the days of the event.

The conference’s Board of Executives, consisting of four students, has dedicated time outside of their academic studies to organize this event for undergraduate researchers to present their work.

“Having a supportive and strong team is crucial to organizing such a large event while managing schoolwork,” said Anu Trivedi, a senior working on the finance committee and double majoring in mathematics and physics. “The innate, encouraging nature of these individuals cultivates a teamwork dynamic that is both supportive and understanding when balancing coursework and conference planning.”

Trivedi said the students planning this event have also had the opportunity to grow as a team and as leaders. “I’ve learned how to make long-term plans and work with others to see those plans come to fruition,” Trivedi said. “We brought on several members to help with each committee, and I’ve learned how to delegate tasks in a way that plays to everyone’s strengths.”

“Organizing a conference of this size and scope is difficult and time consuming, with a lot of components and details that need to be coordinated and carefully planned to ensure that things run smoothly and participants have a good experience, especially with the shift to a virtual platform,” said Keri Swaby, director for the Office of Undergraduate Research, who is familiar with planning universitywide student conferences. “This is a daunting task even for seasoned professionals. It has been incredible to watch this group of students step outside their comfort zone and professionally tackle each task, from soliciting donations and securing respected speakers to thoughtfully considering how to make the virtual conference as engaging and interactive as possible.”

Because this conference is virtual and will look different from previous years, the committee has had to restructure the entire event to accommodate the remote environment.

“There was a steep learning curve,” said Pratishtha Panigrahi, a senior double majoring in both clinical neuroscience and public health. “We had to essentially start from scratch to redesign our conference to incorporate virtual poster presentations, speakers from throughout the world and coordinate a new budget.”

One of the exciting aspects of hosting a virtual conference is that the planning committee has been able to feature more keynote speakers, which was not possible in the past.

“We have the unique opportunity to connect with speakers all the way from California to Australia,” said Panigrahi. “This means we can cover a much wider breadth of topics – oceanography, mathematics, medicine, computational modeling … the list goes on.”

Featured speakers for the conference include Mark Gerstein, professor of biomedical informatics at Yale School of Medicine; Monica Arienzo from the Desert Research Institute; Raffaele Ferrari, of MIT; and Jordan Ellenberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

“Undergraduate research has helped me apply my classroom knowledge to real-world problems for the last three years,” said Trivedi. “I love the creative aspect of research, and seeing applications of my work has been extremely rewarding.”

— Written by Abby Mercatoris