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Joint Summer Student Research Day: A new part of the summer culture

For students eager to spend a few months in a leading research laboratory and conduct a hands-on project, summer is the time to try it. The undergraduate summer research program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) attracts students not only from McGill University, but from around the world. This year all had an opportunity to shine at the end of the summer, communicating their research projects in the inaugural RI-MUHC Joint Summer Student Research Day. 

Undergraduate students from five of eight RI-MUHC research programs stepped out of their host laboratories on August 10 to participate in oral and poster presentations and meet members of the wider RI-MUHC community in a non-competitive context. 

One of the 14 students selected for an oral presentation, Sean McGrath was happy to pitch to an audience of around 100 with diverse scientific backgrounds. “When you disseminate information about your research findings, it feels like you’re making an impact in your field,” said Sean, who is a McGill University mathematics student. “I was explaining some very practical statistical methods that researchers and students in the audience today could use in their own studies.”

Sean’s supervisor, Dr. Andrea Benedetti, is a biostatistician in the Translational Research in Respiratory Diseases Program (RESP) and is also affiliated with the Centre for Outcomes Research and Evaluation. “During the summer session, I was able to develop statistical methods for meta-analysis,” said Sean, “and Dr. Benedetti gave feedback from her experience on how feasible it is, whether it’s a reasonable procedure.”  

Orsolya Lapohos, an honours student in microbiology and immunology at McGill University, delivered her first oral presentation and is ready to face judges next time. Her basic research project on how immunology relates to cancer was supervised by Dr. Lorenzo Ferri (Cancer Research Program), a surgeon experienced in both basic and clinical research. 

“I wouldn’t mind being judged so that I get feedback on how to improve future presentations,” Orsolya said. “I like competition. But this is a good introduction to what a graduate research day would look like.”

Orsolya had presented a poster at a McGill conference, but found it different to present using PowerPoint in an auditorium. The main challenge was the bigger audience, and ensuring that no one in it was falling asleep. The secret to that skill, she believes, is allowing slides to give a visual path into the subject. “Put emphasis on the important terms,” she suggested. “You can’t deliver in a monotone. Switch slides often, and have the least amount of text possible!”

Dr. Aimee Ryan, Interim Deputy Executive Director of the Rl-MUHC and Interim Head of Child Health Research at the MUHC, was impressed with the range and quality of the talks. “This was a totally impressive set of presentations from our undergraduate trainees,” she said. “The talks spanned fundamental, clinical and health outcomes research, and translational app development, with a range of animal models as well as human subjects.”

Dr. Ryan is a scientist in the Child Health and Human Development (CHHD) Program, and her summer student, Veronica Teixeira, was one of 38 students presenting posters in the RI Atrium. It was the first poster presentation for the student from Paris Diderot University, France, and her first time working with chick embryos. “I’m working on the role of proteins, namely claudins,” Veronica explained, “on the development of a structure that will become the brain and spinal cord in chick embryos.” 

Veronica finds that poster presentations are more personal and more relaxing than oral ones, provided you know your topic. “If the person wasn’t interested,” she said, “they wouldn’t be here. But to present a poster, you have to know your topic well to engage in an exchange. In an oral presentation, you know where you will go, but not in a conversation about your poster!”

As a friendly platform to share work on summer projects, the Joint Research Day was well worth organizing, in the view of all five managers of participating research programs. “People know what it is now,” said Dr. Inga Murawski, RESP manager, “and next year it would be great if it becomes part of the summer culture of our institute.”

“We believe it is truly important to invest in summer students by offering activities such as this,” said Dr. Emily Bell, manager of the Desjardins Centre for Advanced Training, which sponsored the event along with the research programs. The centre, she said, provides professional and career growth opportunities for RI-MUHC research trainees. “Many students here today may be future research trainees of the RI-MUHC. A research day sets the students off in the right direction to pursue further studies in research or to compete for scholarships and awards.”