Three days at Harvard

By Jasmine Kaur Garcha, Plant Biology '14

Jasmine Kaur Garcha

Jasmine Kaur Garcha

03/19/14

The National Collegiate Research Conference (NCRC) held annually at Harvard University is the only completely student-run undergraduate research conference in the country. The conference is a platform for students from universities all around the U.S. to convene and present their innovative research. Participants stem from diverse backgrounds, including biology, mathematics, physics, psychology, linguistics, chemistry and humanities. By collaborating with a greater body of disciplines, the students involved in NCRC build connections between fields of study to solve problems holistically.

This year I had the opportunity to attend NCRC to present my research in Dr. Siobhan Brady’s lab in the Plant Biology department, with a talk titled “Identification of Loci Controlling Cortex Layer in Solanum lycopersicum and Solanum pennellii.” My project investigates the number of genetic loci that control cortex layer patterning in the roots of these two species of tomato. The work provides insight on why wild species of tomato show drought resistance while other domesticated species do not. 

I have been working with Dr. Brady for almost two years and this conference was the first time I would be presenting my work to a large group of people. I was incredibly nervous about representing my lab on such a large scale, but I was also excited to learn from my peers. In the end, this experience was easily one of the highlights of my undergraduate career.

Before my actual presentation, I listened to keynotes by several notable members of the science community. Alfred Spector, the Vice President of Research for Google, talked about the upcoming advancements in the move towards advanced computational technology in research. Stephen Wolfram, creator of the popular search engine Wolfram|Alpha, outlined his life and the motivation behind his cutting-edge ideas. Out of all the talks, I enjoyed John Mather from NASA’s the most. His lighthearted retelling of his own career and advice for how to be successful in research captivated me from the beginning.

Outside of the learning, the conference coordinators made sure we were able to have some fun. I went to the participant mixer on the first night where we all got together for some great food and games. Unfortunately, our team lost all of the games but I can say pretty confidently that we had the most fun. On the second night, we explored the North End of Boston. The city night life was beautiful, although at the time it was hard to appreciate the scenery when you’re walking around in seven-degree weather. Being one of the few people from the West Coast, I was the target for a lot of the “spoiled Californian” jokes. We ended the night with a trip to Mike’s Pastries for the best cannoli I have ever tasted.

The last day of the conference was devoted entirely to presentations. I was judged by Margaret Lynch, the Life Sciences advisor at Harvard. Surprisingly, she had worked at Davis before and was familiar with some of the other PI’s in the Plant Bio department. Having her be somewhat familiar with my work definitely eased some of my fears going into the presentation. Although I didn’t get an award for my field, I got fairly good scores from the judges and gained solid advice on how to improve for next time. This presentation really helped build my confidence about speaking to a wider scientific audience.

Overall, participating in NCRC was an incredibly rewarding experience that solidified my desire to work in the sciences. Knowing that my research is contributing a small part to a better understanding of the world has been truly satisfying. In the words of John Mather, “Like it or not, you will change the world, even from your little desk in lab.”