The Inspiration (and Organization) behind ABRCMS
While she was a student at Bentley University, Irene Hulede imagined a future in business. She was majoring in Economics and Finance with expectations to work for a Boston-area business, but an opportunity in her junior year of school changed her career plans. That year, Bentley partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in organizing a pre-engineering program for inner-city students. Hulede saw the difference that exposure to possible careers and a strong network could make in a young person’s life. “It was amazing to see students come in at the beginning of the summer with low confidence in their abilities and leave with plans to apply to undergraduate schools,” Hulede said. After graduating, Bentley University employed her to join the Student Affairs Division staff. Hulede changed her career focus from one concentrated on business to one dedicated to facilitating educational opportunities.
Rarely is the impact of one person’s career path so obviously tied to the options of others, but it’s safe to say that Hulede’s new career path affected the educational and career paths of thousands of students. Hulede’s career in education led her to the American Society for Microbiology, where she and her Education Department team designed, built, and continue to organize the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). Since its inception 16 years ago, Hulede has managed the conference program for the meeting, which has seen over 49,000 attendees in 16 years and at which 19,000 students have given presentations.
ABRCMS was born out of an opportunity from the National Institutes of Health, which posted a request for proposals regarding new organizational management of a meeting for underrepresented minority students. Hulede, ASM Education Director Amy Chang, and a steering committee of multidisciplinary research faculty used this opportunity to enter a proposal on behalf of ASM. The team spoke with students, advisors, and exhibitors to learn how to best address the needs of all participants, agreeing that it was important to build a forum for undergraduate students but also to include a component for their advisors and the exhibitors who represent potential graduate schools or employment opportunities.
The result was a conference featuring scientific presentations, career-building opportunities, and educator resources. The meeting encompassed a four-day program, including an awards banquet to close out the conference and celebrate the learning that had occurred. The program included networking opportunities by offering meal service on-site at the conference and providing time for students to compare experiences or talk casually with speakers. Networking among peers at this early career stage is valuable as students grow academically and professionally, potentially leading to long-term scientific relationships. Each ABRCMS conference is a unique event, but Hulede has found that focusing on these aspects provides the greatest benefits to all attendees.
Most students who attend ABRCMS present their research formally during a poster session. This year, more than 1,900 posters will be on display in areas spanning all biomedical and behavioral sciences fields, from developmental biology to neuroscience to engineering. A small number of poster submitters (around 120) are selected to give an oral presentation. All poster and oral presentations are evaluated by three judges and given a score, with the top tier of presentations receiving prizes at the closing award banquet. While not all students receive an award, “students should really consider an abstract acceptance to be a win,” said Hulede, who is proud of the sophisticated concepts and techniques students master during the course of their research projects.
Established scientists present their research too, and Hulede does her best to expose students to inspirational role models. Shirley Ann Jackson, Francis Collins, Freeman Hrabowski, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Andrew Young and the late Maya Angelou have spoken at past ABRCMS, encouraging attendees to become their greatest selves. The speakers are often eager to interact with the young scientists; after participating in a Q-and-A panel, the grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks, David and Jeri Lacks, then walked around the exhibit floor, visiting with students and asking questions about different research studies. Hulede and her team work hard to enhance the program year after year: “You never want attendees to feel like it’s a cookie-cutter template,” she said.
Part of that hard work is spent finding a niche for all types of learners. “My goal is for everybody to have a unique and rich experience,” Hulede said. She knows large lectures can be an intimidating environment for budding scientists to stand up and ask questions. To complement the keynote and plenary speakers, Hulede works with the program committee to build in many small discussion sessions. These create a more intimate environment that encourages participation from all students.
To further enhance the student experience, Hulede has stressed mentorship in this year’s meeting. Working with top leaders in the community, she has identified excellent candidates, who have been trained for mentoring and advising undergraduates. These mentors will be available for small-group mentoring or coaching during the 2017 meeting, providing a complementary viewpoint to a student’s existing mentorship circle, which is often concentrated in one institution.
Increasing skills outside the lab is a major focus of the program, with sessions on best networking techniques, identifying mentors, and interviewing skills aimed at undergrads and post-baccalaureate students. Sessions for early-career scientists about grant writing, course design, and research ethics provide tips for those still developing their careers, such as postdocs and early-career academics who often serve as volunteer judges. For those unsure about which trajectory to take, Hulede recommends attending career panels, where she tries to represent the wide variety of career opportunities available to young scientists. “I invite people from government, science communication, industry. Sometimes I invite multiple people from the same sector, since three people from industry can have totally different career tracks, increasing student exposure to different possibilities,” said Hulede.
“Each year, I ask myself, ‘How am I going to wow folks?’” said Hulede. She stresses the importance of her small but enthusiastic team in brainstorming and actualizing innovative programming each year. There can be long hours and hard work in the weeks preceding the event, but working with similarly passionate colleagues like Ronica Rodela, part of the ABRCMS team since 2003, makes it “fun-hard work.”
That fun-hard work has resulted in ABRCMS being more popular than ever. There were over 4,000 attendees at the 2016 event, and the 2017 event is expected to surpass that. This has led to questions about whether the conference should continue to grow in size or be capped at a certain number of attendees. Rather than opting to turn people away, “the consensus is to keep growing it!” said Hulede. This adds challenges for creating intimate discussion sessions, and the inspiration for the small-group mentoring came in part from addressing this challenge. One thing is clear from speaking with Hulede: she wants to expose as many young students as possible to as many career possibilities as possible. “I love seeing young people succeed,” she says.
ABRCMS is dedicated to bringing together students from underrepresented minorities to increase student awareness of the many paths a science career can take them along. It also gives students the chance to mingle with peers who may have similar experiences and role models who can help students solidify a vision of success for themselves in the future. When asked if she receives feedback from participants, Hulede laughed. “We may not know everyone’s story, but we hope the little bit we can do to prepare them with this conference will get them to the next level.” She then sent me an email containing feedback from many former attendees:
- “The most valuable lesson I learned from ABRCMS is that there are so many different opportunities for me in science and that I have so many mentors that I can rely on to help my plan my journey.”
- “I always thought that being a scientist was for "other" people, but it is for me!”
- “Out of all the lessons I learned in ABRCMS, the most valuable must be the importance of networking. I learned to step out of my comfort zone in many ways, from travelling alone for the first time to speaking to people I had never met before.”
- “The most valuable lesson that i learned from attending ABRCMS is that no matter where you come from (either a big or small college) everyone has the very same potential of creating a great impact in the world of science.”
- “I have renewed my enthusiasm to continue doing research with undergraduate students”
- “My overall experience at ABRCMS 2016 was beyond what I expected. The peers and colleagues I met helped inspire me to continue to pursue a scientific career, and aim for a Ph.D. The workshops were also very helpful and eye opening.”
- “The conference was a wonderful, amazing experience that allowed me to explore a diverse set of disciplines while networking with fellow scientists. It reaffirmed my interest in the biomedical research field and has given me even more encouragement to follow through with it.”
- “Thank you for the extraordinary opportunity to have been able to be not only encouraged, but also inspired by the amazing people at the conference. Being a first-generation Hispanic woman in engineering at a community college, I am beyond grateful for such a wonderful opportunity to grow and learn so much from everyone.”