UO Undergraduate Receives Prestigious Conference Travel Award
University of Oregon student Ben Blue was recently awarded an Undergraduate Travel Award from the Genetics Society of America to attend the 20th International C. elegans Meeting. C. elegans is the biannual conference that brings together the international community of C. elegans researchers. Conference attendees learn about cutting-edge research in a diverse array of topics, including: physiology, neurobiology, development, evolution, behavior, aging, ecology, gene regulation, genomics, and many more.
Blue, a senior biochemistry major, is conducting research in the Phillips Laboratory under the supervision and mentorship of Patrick Phillips, professor of biology, and Stephen Banse, postdoctoral research associate. Blue’s research utilizes C. elegans (a nematode) and microfluidic technology designed and developed in his research group’s lab to measure how various dietary inputs affect life-history traits such as reproductive behavior, physiological health, and longevity.
UROP took a moment to catch up with Ben (BB) and Professor Phillips (PP) to discuss Ben’s research project and recent award.
How did you get started in the Phillips Laboratory?
BB – One of my TAs for my introctory biology class was an undergraduate researcher in the Phillips lab and I was lucky enough that she remembered me when the lab was looking for more volunteers.
Patrick, do you frequently utilize undergraduates in your lab? If so, what are the benefits of including undergraduate students in your research?
PP – I usually have 5-10 undergraduates working in the lab at any one time. They provide terrific energy and productivity to the lab. Many of our most interesting projects started as small undergraduate research studies to see if something could work or not. For me, this is also a central part of the educational experience that a top tier research university can provide. Doing your own “real” research can really be transformational in how it affects ones understanding of the things they have learned in the classroom.
These awards are very competitive. What type of assistance did you receive during the application process? Were there any people that were particularly helpful?
BB – Throughout the entire application process I got amazing help from both Professor Phillips and Stephen Banse, the research associate that I work with on a day-to-day basis. I honestly can’t thank the two of them enough for their help editing my application as well as the broader role they’ve played in the development of my research project. In addition, the community within the lab has made it incredible place to work over the last two years.
What are the benefits of students presenting their research at a conference such as C. elegans?
PP – Scientific meetings are completely immersive events that expose you to the cutting edge research going on in the field. While a student might interact with a few other researchers in their lab in their specific research area, going to a meeting with 1,000 other people with similar interests is really an eye opening affair. It is also a great opportunity for Ben to show off the great work that he has done and to interact with faculty from other universities who might be potential graduate advisors down the line.
What was the most challenging aspect of your research project? The most rewarding?
BB – The most difficult and frustrating aspect was trying to develop new technology and protocols to go with it. It involved a lot of trial and error but it was definitely worth it in the end. The most rewarding aspect of the project was when I had finally fine-tuned my devices to the point at which I could begin collecting data. It was incredible to see a system finally come online and large amounts of data start rolling in.
What are a few of the key characteristics of an effective mentor-mentee relationship?
PP – Like all relationships, communication is key. On the student side, being extremely conscientious and hardworking are the keys to success. On the faculty side, being clear in your expectations and enthusiastic in your support are very helpful. It also “takes a village.” The whole lab operates as a family in supporting the research effort of our undergraduates, particularly graduate students and postdocs. In Ben’s case, Stephen Banse, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, helped Ben with most of the day-to-day operations of Ben’s work.
What is your expected graduation date and post-graduation plans?
BB – I’m graduating this June with a degree in Biochemistry and I’m very lucky to be able to stay on in the Phillips lab and continue my work over the coming year. This fall, I plan on applying to a graduate program in the biology of aging.
What advice would you give an undergraduate student looking to get started in research?
PP – Many faculty are on the lookout for good undergraduates but also tend to be inundated with requests. As in many aspects of life, networking can be helpful. First, develop relationships with faculty within the courses you take. This does not have to lead to position in that specific faculty member’s lab, but they might be able to recommend you to another faculty member. Talk to faculty you are already interacting with about the whole set of research going on in the department. You can also make connections with graduate and undergraduate students already working in a lab. Having a connection with a friend or a GTF that can recommend you to the lab will almost always at least get you a foot in the door to talk to the faculty member. Also make sure to do you homework ahead of time regarding the types of research going on in your department.
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