UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS holds 2020 Annual Symposium in a virtual format

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By John Garza

For the past five years, BUILDing SCHOLARS at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) has held a research symposium in the fall to provide trainees the opportunity to present the research they conducted over the summer.  Event organizers around the world have had to adapt to quarantine conditions under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic by holding remote events online this year, and BUILD was no exception. The 2020 annual symposium continued in a virtual format, with some innovative changes and plenty of familiar elements.

Rather than the customary single day event, the symposium occurred asynchronously over the course of a week. Presenters uploaded PDFs of their posters, along with prerecorded, five-minute presentations. An array of judges including faculty mentors from UTEP and partner institutions, post-docs, and graduate students evaluated the presenters for their ability to clearly and effectively communicate their findings.

Kiana Burnett, a BUILDing SCHOLARs award winner for her presentation titled Confirming the Extent of Parkinsonian Symptoms in a Mouse Model by Correlating Striatal Dopamine Loss with Motor Impairment, compared the virtual format to prior in-person events.

Kiana Burnett, BUILDing SCHOLARS

"My top priority when it comes to presenting in any format is relaying information in a very palpable manner. Typically, with in-person presentations you can anticipate questions to elaborate on a topic (much like conversations), but with virtual symposiums it is especially important to be thorough and concise,” she said. 

Joel Mudloff, a Scholar who won an award in the Translational Biomedicine category for his presentation Scaffolds for Treatment of Bone Defects remarked, “Presenting in the virtual symposium was different in that the nerves came from trying to record the video in one take without messing up rather than the nerves that come from having to present face to face.”

Although students could not answer questions in person, comment and reply boxes under each presentation allowed for robust conversations between the presenters and their audience. “One positive thing about presenting virtually is that you can take your time coming up with proper answers to questions rather than drawing a blank because of your nerves,” Mudloff remarked.

The virtual symposium reflected an adaptation in more than one way. Typically, BUILD Scholars spend their summers away from home conducting research at partner institutions. These plans changed for most trainees this summer due to COVID-19 restrictions, with many continuing their research with their academic year mentors or participating in remote research opportunities.

Samantha Sakells, BUILDing SCHOLARS

Scholar Samantha Sakells described her contingent summer plans, “I did a completely different kind of research because my usual research involves a lot of bench work, and the labs were closed. For this summer, I participated in the BUILD Research Collaboratory, and I was able to learn a lot of new skills involving statistics and coding that I would not have otherwise learned had we not switched to remote projects.” Although the research was new for her, Sakells won a first place presentation award for her poster Impact of COVID-19 on Education.

The virtual event was a successful substitution under exceptional circumstances, but it could not completely replicate every feature of the live event, particularly the social aspects. “One thing that I missed was getting to see all my peers dressed up nice for their presentations,” Mudloff commented.

Sakells similarly expressed, “I did miss seeing all the other presenters live and in person presenting their summer research though. I feel that the other presenters and I were a bit disconnected from each other in contrast to previous symposiums.”

Despite these limitations, the virtual symposium continued an annual tradition, while providing trainees with experience sharing their research in a novel format. Burnett remarked on its value as a learning experience, “It is great practice for all of us in learning how to be full experts on our subject manner." After this brief diversion, presenters and attendees alike can look forward to resuming the in-person event next fall.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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