Interesting Opportunity logoThe annual NIH Graduate Student Research (GSR) Symposium highlights the vast diversity of graduate research at the NIH. The symposium, which takes place around the end of February, is the largest event for NIH graduate students, featuring over 100 student presentations. We served on the organizing committee for the 2018 symposium, gaining valuable experience in organizing and running a large event. Check out this interesting opportunity!

Larissa Erben wearing a white vest with a fur-lined hood in front of snowy mountains

Larissa Erben

Graduate Student, Buonanno lab
Partnership Institution: University of Bonn, Germany

Larissa investigates plasticity regulation by Neuregulin/ErbB4 signaling pathway associated with schizophrenia. She previously served with the Graduate Student Council (GSC) on the Social and Retreat Committee. This year, Larissa wanted experience in organizing a bigger scientific event.

Laura Marler smiling, wearing glasses, in a sunny hallway

Laura Marler

Graduate Student, Hinnebusch lab
Partnership Institution: Johns Hopkins University

Laura studies ribosomal start codon recognition. She has participated in the Graduate Student Research Symposium for several years, but this year Laura wanted to be involved behind the scenes to help put the symposium together. 

The GSR Research Symposium Committee

The GSR Symposium Committee is a group of volunteer graduate students who organize the symposium in tight conjunction with the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) and the Graduate Student Partnership Program (GPP) Director and Deputy Director.

The primary duties of the Symposium Committee include choosing and organizing scientific content for the event. In particular, the committee:

  • Suggests, selects, invites, and hosts the keynote speaker
  • Selects four student speakers, based on abstract submissions, for  short oral presentations
  • Organizes practice talks with selected student speakers, who will speak in front of a broad audience
  • Organizes and conducts the elevator pitch competition
  • Helps draft and review the symposium program book
  • Serves as a contact point for students
  • Promotes the symposium to encourage student participation

OITE manages the administrative and organizational duties, such as selecting the date of the event, reserving the venue, printing the symposium program book and name tags, organizing poster numbers and judges for the poster award, catering, and arranging the graduation ceremony. The Graduate Student Council co-chairs choose and present the outstanding mentor awards.

Time commitment

As members of the committee, we found the time commitment to be relatively small. The committee has an initial meeting in early fall to begin planning the event, and then meets around once a month during the planning process. The most time-consuming task is the selection of student speakers, which required us to read through about 60 abstracts and choose the best four. Committee members are expected to attend practice talks by the student speakers and to carry out assigned roles on the day of the symposium.

The committee has a clear timeline and instructions throughout the planning phase. A close collaboration with GPP Deputy Director Dr. Phil Ryan, and task allocation within the committee, made it easy to accomplish everything on time.

Roles on the committee

Members of the research symposium committee share symposium planning responsibilities. Shared duties include selecting the keynote and student speakers, crafting the agenda, writing an introduction for the symposium book, editing the draft program, and attending student practice talks.

Towards the end of the planning phase and at the event itself, individual roles emerge. For us, Laura invited our keynote speaker, Dr. Eric Betzig, and communicated with him throughout the process. During the event, she hosted Dr. Betzig and introduced him before his talk. Larissa organized the student talks, scheduled practice talks, wrote student bios, and introduced the student speakers. Two other committee members organized the elevator pitch competition and managed it during the symposium.

Postdoc, staff member and other NIH employee involvement

Each year, postdoctoral judges evaluate the student posters for the NIH Graduate Student Research Award and organize the specific research categories for the awards. Judging takes about an hour and half, and boxed lunches are provided. Plus, volunteer judges learn about the interesting research done by graduate students at the NIH.

Symposium organizers with Dr. Eric Betzig

Keynote speaker Dr. Eric Betzig with the 2018 NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium Committee

From left to right: Keyla Tumas (NIAID, Georgetown University), Laura Marler (NICHD, Johns Hopkins University), Dr. Eric Betzig, Lampouguin Yenkoidiok Douti (NIAID, University of Maryland, College Park), Ruby Lam (NCCIH, Brown University), Larissa Erben (NICHD, University of Bonn)

Our Individual Experiences

Most valuable experience

LARISSA: In organizing practice talks for student speakers, I learned how to give presentations, especially presentations for a broad audience (for example, how important it is to give a clear and broad introduction, how to capture the audience’s attention, and how to avoid getting lost in the details).

LAURA: I learned about planning a scientific event from beginning to end. The most valuable part for me was communicating with our keynote speaker. I learned how to draft an email to invite a speaker for an event, and I had the opportunity to practice hosting a speaker in a professional capacity. Through the abstract selection process, I learned a lot about what a committee looks for and what makes an abstract stand out.

Most difficult/stressful part

LARISSA: The planning phase was not stressful at all. On the day itself, I was a little tense and hoped that everything went smoothly. The most stressful part for me was to be on stage and introduce the speakers. I was really nervous.

LAURA: I was nervous about hosting and introducing Dr. Betzig on the day of the symposium. Beyond that, the planning wasn’t stressful. I think the most difficult part was choosing speakers from the abstracts that were submitted. There were too many that were really good!

Prior experience before joining the committee

LARISSA: There is essentially no prior experience required. Every graduate student starting from his/her first year can serve on the committee.

LAURA: It was very helpful to have a committee member who had served on the committee in previous years to give us advice and make sure that everything went smoothly, but there is no specific experience required for individual members. This is a good way to gain experience with organizing an event of this size.

Overall impression of serving on the committee

LARISSA: I would highly recommend serving on the Graduate Student Research Symposium Committee, or if you are not a graduate student, on any other similar committee. It builds teamwork, leadership, and organizational skills. Moreover, I obtained valuable insights into the organization of such a big event.

LAURA: I would certainly recommend serving on the committee. I gained a lot of valuable experience in a timeframe that didn’t put strain on my lab duties, and I greatly enjoyed meeting and working with the committee members.

The 2018 NIH Graduate Student Research Symposium included:

  • Two poster sessions 
  • Four short oral presentations by graduate students
  • An elevator pitch competition (a lively and entertaining opening to the symposium, where graduate students present their projects in two minutes, without slides or other visual aids) 
  • A keynote lecture (Nobel laureate Dr. Eric Betzig delivered this year’s keynote)
  • Presentation of outstanding mentors 
  • Poster awards (NIH Graduate Student Research Awards) 
  • Graduate ceremony honoring students who defended their dissertations in the past year

Find more information about the symposium and the program book here.

A Thank You to our Fellow Committee Members

We want to thank our fellow committee members for organizing the event together and for sharing this invaluable experience with us. In addition, thank you to Dr. Phil Ryan and Dr. Phil Wang for their guidance; Dr. Sharon Milgram and the OITE staff for their contributions in planning and holding the event; Drs. Jodian Brown, Gail Seabold and Angel Abner de la Cruz Landau for organizing the judging for the poster awards; the 2017 GSC co-chairs Keyla Tumas and Carly Starke for managing the outstanding mentor awards; Dr. Eric Betzig for his enthusiasm and willingness to deliver the keynote; the student speakers; and all poster presenters and judges.