Plant Biology 2017 welcomed students in Honolulu with an exclusive undergraduate poster session. Among those undergraduates represented, I had the pleasure of meeting many talented young researchers at the poster session, and was able to chat in depth with 14 of the ASPB Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) awardees at both the undergraduate poster session and a SURF networking dinner that followed. What was exciting about this year’s group was the ethnic and gender diversity as well as the diversity of institutions represented. It is critical that ASPB develop research opportunities in plant sciences at multiple levels and the SURF program and undergraduate poster session once again demonstrated the society’s commitment to that endeavor.
To see scientists at the very beginning of their careers is rewarding and hopeful, and the level of enthusiasm from the undergraduates regarding their work was fantastic. The young researchers certainly demonstrated their expertise and interest in science and gave me confidence that they have the mettle to provide ASPB and society the next generation of plant scientists. While many expressed career interests in plant biology, some mentioned other avenues that they will pursue. In particular was a student who expressed a desire to pursue a career in science policy. This alone demonstrates the value of the SURF program providing an excellent avenue to undergraduates to hone their skills for a career in scientific research but also eliciting professional avenues for individuals who may have significant impact on plant science funding and policy.
It does appear that the SURF program has increased in ethnic and gender diversity and certainly more can and should be done to continue in that direction. It is imperative that Plant Biology reach out to a more diverse pool of individuals and the SURF program is an indication of that goal of increased inclusion.
Another unique component of the undergraduate poster event was the diversity of institutions represented. Students presenting at the undergraduate poster session came from both large and small programs. While the bulk of highly significant publications in plant biology comes from large land grant institutions, and private colleges with significant resources, future scientists and many individuals are being trained at colleges and universities that do not make the top tier. The SURF program enables students at these smaller institutions the opportunity to participate in research and brings plant science to these institutions at an increased level scientifically. This creates a pipeline of individuals who move on to graduate programs at larger institutions but more significantly, it brings plant science to smaller institutions, thus reaching a wider audience in a society that currently questions public funding for plant science programs.
If you have never attended the undergraduate poster session at the annual Plant Biology meeting, I suggest you attempt a visit. To discuss science with undergraduates at the beginning of their scientific career is uplifting. They have an enthusiasm, and a level of energy and excitement, that is needed to keep plant science research relevant and vibrant.