Students seize chance to connect at Graduate Student Symposium

Written by
Scott Lyon
Oct. 15, 2019

When preparing to talk about her research in front of a mixed crowd, Nancy Lu first considers the audience. "I want to motivate the problem so it can appeal to everybody," she said. In this case she was closing out the first session of the 30th annual Graduate Student Symposium, held by Princeton's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Her audience was a packed room full of professors, industry scientists and students from a variety of disciplines. She avoided elaborating on specialized mathematics and talked through the physics of her problem in what she called "more intuitive" terms. This approach allowed her to connect with colleagues who, although they have similar academic backgrounds, work with concepts far apart from her own.

Lu was one of 18 CBE students presenting research at the conference, which she co-organized. Topics ranged from the abstract to the material, including a new way to model water using artificial intelligence, a method for making cheap antimalarial drugs, a search for useful molecules in the microbiome and a series of experiments that shed light on abnormal cell growth in fruit flies, a proxy for biological development writ large.

Department Chair Athanassios Panagiotopoulos, the Susan Dod Brown Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, opened the day by recognizing the unique nature of the symposium. "This is an entirely student-organized and [student]-run event in which the faculty take a back seat to watch them present their work," he said.

In recent years, the event has expanded to two consecutive days. The first day, called Industry Day, featured partners from Merck, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, MilliporeSigma and GlaxoSmithKline, giving students a chance to speak with representatives of those companies about career prospects. By focusing entirely on opportunities related to CBE graduate students, Industry Day fills a gap left by existing job fairs, which tend to be broad in scope, according to Lu. She said she hopes Industry Day continues to grow in the coming years.

"One of the points of this is to give students experience organizing a conference," said Kurt Ristroph, who also co-organized the event. "I have to say, it's been a lot of work, a lot to learn, but it's been a lot of fun."

The symposium's centerpiece came with a pair of keynote addresses, delivered by two graduate alumni of the department. Scott Shell, professor and vice chair of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, closed out the morning sessions by recounting his effort to replicate the Graduate Student Symposium at UCSB, and discussing his research into developing surfaces that interact strongly or weakly with water. Marina Feric, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes for Health, kicked off the afternoon sessions speaking about the merits of a large government-run lab and her work on the role of sub-cellular structures in tumor development, which she began while a graduate student at Princeton.

"In the absence of an infrastructure like this it can be tough for students to know what the options are, in terms of what's next," said Professor Clifford Brangwynne. "It's a great event."

ExxonMobil, BMS and Air Products provided financial support, and the manufacturing company SABIC sponsored two awards given to students whose work showed outstanding promise.

The symposium closed with remarks from Professor Rodney Priestley, the department's director of graduate studies, who in presenting the day's awards praised the students for their impressive research and their dedication and effort in organizing the event. He drew special attention to Lu and Ristroph for their leadership.

"This is truly a highlight of the academic year," Priestley said.


The awards were:

Shuwen Yue — Best Talk, Session I: Computational Modeling

Kurt Ristroph — Best Talk, Session II: Materials Science and Engineering

Makoto Lalwani — Best Talk, Session III: Microbial Research

Sarah McFann — Best Talk, Session IV: Multicellular Research

Ari Gilman — Best Poster

Daniel Kozuch  — Kristine M. Layn Award

In recognition of former graduate student Kristine Layn, given every year to a student who has demonstrated exceptional progress in research up to the third year. The award is selected by the faculty graduate committee.

Evan Ostrowski, Katie Randazzo — Air Products Assistant in Instruction Award

In recognition of graduate students who have gone beyond the normal call for being an AI and shown tremendous dedication to their work. The awards are selected by undergraduate student body. 

Chris Browne, Payam Farahani, Bernardo Gouveia — SABIC Best General Examination Award

In recognition of combined performance in first year core course grades, written research proposal, oral presentation and research to date. The award is selected by the faculty graduate committee.

Jarad Klein — SABIC Best First Paper Award

In recognition of an outstanding first publication. The award is selected by scientist at SABIC based on papers nominated by CBE faculty.