Biology students present research during memorable Chattanooga conference

From left to right: Erika Rivera, Shannon Lowry, Brooke Blackmon, and Sierra Wright
From left to right: Erika Rivera, Shannon Lowry, Brooke Blackmon, and Sierra Wright

The annual conference of the Association of Southeastern Biologist (ASB) drew more than a thousand people to its four-day conference in Chattanooga. For UNCP Biology majors Brooke Blackmon, Shannon Lowry, Erika Rivera, and Sierra Wright, the conference was a memorable experience -- sharing their research findings while enjoying the excitement of science with a friendly audience. Their research posters spanned a variety of topics in entomology and taxonomy, as co-authored by Drs. Kaitlin Campbell and Lisa Kelly of the Biology Department.

Erika and Sierra had presented posters previously at a national science conference, but not so for Brooke and Shannon. Brooke said, “It was my first conference, and I could not have imagined a better combination of networking with peers, viewing research, and talking with representatives from graduate school. I also liked how the research aspects of the conference were accompanied by other social events and outings. We were able to visit the local Chattanooga aquarium and learn a lot about aquatic animals and environments from all over the world.” Shannon had similar sentiments: “This was my first out-of-state conference, and I am so happy I went! I made lasting memories and friendships.” Erika is virtually a “veteran” of conferences, having presented work at international, national, and local conferences. She and Sierra had presented earlier versions of their posters during last year’s annual Pembroke Undergraduate Research and Creativity (PURC) symposium.

The ASB conference kicked off on Wednesday night (March 20th) with a plenary talk by North Carolina native Dr. Karen G. Lloyd (professor at the University of Tennessee), who is the upcoming Wrigley Professor of Earth Science at the University of Southern California. Her talk was a big hit. When asked to comment on interesting presentations, Erika said, “I found the plenary talk to be very inspiring. It motivated me to continue with my educational goals and push through my current challenges.”  Sierra said, “There were a few talks on salamanders that I found pretty interesting, especially since they discussed topics that had been mentioned in my Field Zoology class earlier that week. The plenary talk was also extremely interesting because it took knowledge from both my major (Biology) and my minor (Geology). Usually, I'm completely lost or bored during plenary talks but this time I was engrossed and even able to explain what the speaker had said to others who had trouble understanding.” Shannon commented, “The most interesting presentation I saw at the conference was the plenary talk given by Dr. Karen G. Lloyd. She talked about her research involving subterranean microbes living in extreme environments, how she got to study these microbes, and where this research has taken her.” 

A popular and long-standing tradition of the ASB conference is the Thursday Night Social. This year’s social was held at the Tennessee Aquarium, where ASB participants had exclusive access to the facilities, full of amazing creatures of the aquatic realm. When asked to comment on the most memorable aspect of the conference, Erika remarked: “The night at the aquarium was such a unique and fun experience that I will always remember. It was the most exciting networking event I have been to this far.” Sierra said, “The most memorable parts of the conference were when our lab spent time together. We had a lot of fun going to talks, trying new foods, and visiting the aquarium for the social event.” Likewise, Shannon commented, “The most memorable part of the conference for me was visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, it was an incredible experience with food, live music, and access to roam the aquarium.” 


Networking and socializing were also “big hits.” Brooke: “The most fun aspect of this conference was sharing these experiences with my peers at the conference with me. The experiences from this conference opened me up to new aspects of being a student in science and what being a professional in science could be like. I liked having the opportunity to present my research with others at the conference and receive comments and new ideas. This led to a lot of beneficial academic discussions I can use to further my research. I also really enjoyed talking with other presenters at the conference about their research and its implications for the community.” Sierra: “I liked that the conference had talks and presentations on so many different topics. I also liked that there were a lot of conservation-based talks. The most beneficial aspect of the conference was meeting other like-minded scientists and learning about interesting research being done in my chosen career.” Erika: “I really enjoyed networking with other biologists in the region. It was exciting to learn about the many opportunities within the region. There were many booths set up that provided potential job opportunities for biologists. I also really enjoyed being able to talk with representatives of local universities to get insight about grad school. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting other biologists within the region; this opportunity also gave me the chance to get to know the students that I attended the conference with better.” Shannon: “The beneficial aspect of the conference was the many booths set up around the conference. Multiple opportunities were advertised such as graduate school, fieldwork, and biological stations, some of which I had never known about, but since talking with a representative I am interested in pursuing a few.”  


Nevertheless, the conference could do more to advertise career opportunities. Sierra: “I wish there had been more booths showcasing internships and jobs as I am graduating this semester and looking for a job, but it was still nice to learn about all the programs and schools that were able to have booths this year.”


Conference travel would not have been possible without the support of the PURC Center and the Department of Biology. Big “thanks” go to Prof. Brandon Sanderson (PURC Program Director) and Ms. Alesia Cummings (PURC Executive Assistant) for facilitating PURC Student Travel Funds, and to Ms. Tasha Oxendine (Recruiter for NC-Louis Stokes Access to Minority Participation Program, or NC-LSAMP) and Dr. Velinda Woriax (Biology Department Chair) for arranging transportation. Indeed, the PURC program provided critical monetary support for Erika and Brooke, enabling them to do summer research or to work in the lab during the academic year. Thanks also go to the COMPASS Program for providing research support for Sierra and to the NC-LSAMP Program for supporting Shannon's research.