First CNMS GradFest fosters interdepartmental interaction among grads, postdocs

Published: Apr 23, 2024

Ballroom with several round tables with yellow tablecloths, four large posterboards on each, groups of people around each one and in the spaces between
CNMS GradFest piloted a successful new arrangement of tables and posterboards. (Image by Melissa Penley Cormier, M.F.A. '17)

On April 12, more than 150 students, staff, and faculty attended the first College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS) GradFest in the University Center Ballroom. The event was the result of listening sessions held with CNMS graduate students last summer, and it addressed their desire for more opportunities to forge interdepartmental connections and present their research.

“Every day, I hear about the great work being done by graduate students and postdocs in CNMS departments,” William R. LaCourse, CNMS dean, shared in his opening remarks. “Today is my chance to meet all of the graduate students the faculty are always bragging about.” 

The event began with six “lightning talks,” where Ph.D. students were challenged to present the big idea of their thesis projects in only five minutes. Naghmeh Akhavan, mathematics, led off, presenting her project on cell migration in fruit fly development. She is co-mentored by Brad Peercy in mathematics and Michelle Starz-Gaiano in biological sciences. Misti Cartwright, chemistry and biochemistry, discussed her work with Aaron Smith on a post-translation protein modification called arginylation. 

Sandra Cheng, physics, talked about her work with Todd Pittman in quantum computing, and Manju Ojha, chemistry and biochemistry, explained her work on RNA-based plant viruses with Deepak Koirala. Ji Li, statistics, described a protocol he developed under the mentorship of Yi Huang to improve data sets for randomized controlled trials. And Prableen Chowdhary, biological sciences, explained her work with Rachel Brewster on zebrafish development.

group of nine people stands in front of a beige curtain
GradFest lightning talk presenters and the planning committee, from left to right: Ronita Sequeira, Ally Kido, Ji Li, Sandra Cheng, Misti Cartwright, Manju Ojha, Prableen Chowdhary, Naghmeh Akhavan, and Ayokunnumi Ogunsanya. (Image by Melissa Penley Cormier, M.F.A. ’17)

After the talks, two sessions featuring 46 posters allowed attendees to learn about the presenters’ research, ask questions, and make suggestions. A novel arrangement of posters in the ballroom facilitated interaction: Placing four posters each on round tables allowed guests to meander among the posters in many directions, unimpeded by long, linear poster displays.

Tasty mocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and desserts rounded out a successful event that brought graduate students and postdocs—collectively, the research engine of UMBC—together to socialize, practice presenting, and learn about each other’s work. 

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