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Annual Undergrad Biology Research Program conference brings together minds, bodies and souls

Vanessa Ontiveros
The way to a shark’s heart is through his sliced-open belly. The UA’s Marine Awareness Conservation Society shows off their dissected Spiny Dogfish Shark.

The Undergraduate Biology Research Program held their 29th Annual Conference Saturday, Jan. 20, in Environment and Natural Science 2 Building. 

Through UBRP, approximately 120 students work with a faculty mentor to conduct research in working laboratories. The program pays half the students’ wages, allowing many students to help support themselves while gaining experience in their chosen field.

Each student then designs and creates a poster to explain their findings, and has the opportunity to explain their work to conference attendees, which usually number around 300 people. 

“Even if you’re the smartest person on the planet and the best scientist, if you can’t explain what you’re doing, it’s not going to be helpful,” said Jennifer Cubeta, the director of UBRP and an alumna of the program. 

This is Cubeta’s first year as director of UBRP. She filled the role previously held for 29 years by Carol Bender, who created the conference in 1989 shortly after the inception of UBRP in 1988.

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During Cubeta’s welcome address, she payed homage to Bender and her legacy within UBRP. Cubeta presented Bender with a book filled with photos and messages of gratitude from UBRP alumni, as well as a bottle of wine crafted by an alumnus. 

“It’s just been really a great honor and privilege,” Bender said. “It’s been so much fun too, because this is just a great place to do this kind of thing, when a faculty are so receptive to having undergraduate students work with them.”

The conference also featured a keynote address by Dr. Mohab Ibrahim, a UBRP alum and professor emeritus of anesthesiology and pharmacology. His UBRP mentor from his undergraduate years, Dr. Phil Malan, introduced his former pupil and current colleague. 

“I know this might sound cheesy, but [presenting at the UBRP conference] actually feels surreal,” Ibrahim said. “I was a student and now I am the one who is giving the students the talk.”

The bulk of the conference was dedicated to the student poster presentations. Having started during summer 2017, most students presented research they had been working on for months, some even years. 

“Having the opportunity to work in a research lab and present your own research at various conferences is truly wonderful,” said Karen Serrano, a junior majoring in biology.

Through UBRP, students not only conduct research, but are required to present their findings. This gives them the chance to explain their research in front of a variety of people.

“UBRP showed me what research in the biological experiences is like and how important discoveries are made,” said Neeraj Vij, a senior physics student. “It has also helped spark my creativity, pushed me to grow not only as a student of science, but also as a team member and public speaker.”

Only half of the students presented during each of the two sessions. This gave students the opportunity to see the work of their peers, many of whom have become close friends over the course of their studies.

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“I have met a lot of friends through the program who are nerdy and fun to be around,” said Charis Springhower, a senior majoring in biochemistry. “It provides community that can be difficult to find sometimes at a big college.”

UBRP actively cultivates this palpable sense of community through its UBRP Ambassadors. The Ambassadors are select UBRP students who organize social events, such as an annual Fourth of July trip to Mount Lemmon dressed as their research subjects, to help foster comradery among the students.

“There is so much support and encouragement from Jen and Carol and the community,” said Tiffany Cho, a junior neuroscience student and UBRP Ambassadors president. “I never expected to make lifelong friends from the program and I cherish every moment I get to spend with the people because they are so brilliant and inspiring.”

Both the expected and the spontaneous, the research and the relationships, were well represented at Saturday’s conference. 

“The UBRP community is incredibly supportive and especially fun,” said Matthew Chaung, a senior molecular and cellular biology student. “Some of my closest friends are from the UBRP program and I feel lucky to know these truly amazing individuals … The UBRP program has been one of the most transformative experiences of my college career.”

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