Attending national meetings is a rite of passage for graduate students, an opportunity to learn about the newest research in your field and talk to scientists from all over the country. But these meetings can also be intimidating, with a staggering volume of research on display and world-renowned experts surrounded by similarly distinguished peers.

At the biannual American Chemical Society meetings, the Graduate Student Symposium, which is organized entirely by and for graduate students, offers a respite from the overwhelm.

This year, at the Fall 2017 ACS meeting in Washington, D.C., the Graduate Student Symposium was hosted by a group of eight Virginia Tech doctoral students, who survived a competitive application process to win the privilege of putting on the event.

The Aug. 22 symposium, featured by the ACS president as a recommended event, was called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Developing Chemistries for Improved Global Health.” The daylong symposium included eight speakers and covered a range of advances in chemistry that stand to impact human well-being, including breakthroughs in biomaterials, drug delivery, bioimaging, peptide analysis, and medical technology.

The chair of the planning committee was Ryan Mondschein, a fifth-year doctoral candidate from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

Where did he get the idea to apply? From a former Virginia Tech student.

In 2015, Mondschein and Justin Sirrine, who is also on the planning committee, were attending their first ACS meeting when they heard from Lindsay Johnson, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech. By then a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, Johnson was on the committee hosting that year’s graduate student symposium and told Mondschein and Sirrine about the competition.  

“We started brainstorming right then and there,” Mondschein said.

Mondschein assembled a committee, and the eight students distributed the long list of tasks that go into pulling off an all-day event: recruiting speakers, organizing logistics, creating a budget, fundraising, marketing. The group met every other week for more than a year, with each committee member leading their own projects and contributing ideas to other members’ initiatives, too.

“Seeing how everyone came together, and seeing how much we got done as a team, was really gratifying,” Mondschein said.

The students welcomed the opportunity to develop from scratch an event they were excited about, one that they thought would appeal to other graduate students, as well.

“You get to put on a symposium, a program that you find interesting, invite speakers that you want to see talk,” Mondschein said.

The students netted an impressive slate of speakers spanning a broad range of research areas. All nationally recognized experts, the speakers were excited to be recruited by graduate students, who are on the front lines of research executing innovative experiments and making groundbreaking discoveries.  

The talk given by Phil Baran, a professor of chemistry at Scripps University and the winner of a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, attracted more than 200 attendees and quickly filled the lecture hall to standing-room-only. 

To cover the costs of the symposium and provide travel funding for students hoping to attend the meeting, the planning committee raised nearly $35,000, including a highly competitive grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Brittany Nichols, a fourth-year doctoral student from Gibsonville, North Carolina, led the fundraising team.

“To be able to say as a graduate student that you were funded by the NIH is pretty exciting,” Nichols said.

The group also won funding from chemical company BASF, the American Chemical Society, academic journals, and several groups on campus, including the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the College of Science, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

As part of the symposium’s student-friendly atmosphere, the committee planned an evening networking event smaller and more informal than some of the meeting’s other social gatherings, where attendees will have a chance to talk with the symposium speakers.

“At these meetings, there a lot of big-name people and it can be intimidating to try to go up and talk to them and ask questions,” Nichols said. “But at these student-led symposia we create an atmosphere where you feel comfortable talking to these professors and networking with them.”

“It makes this huge meeting a little smaller,” she said.

Graduate students Lindsey Anderson, Kyle Arrington, Yifan Dong, Justin Sirrine, Chad Powell, and Samantha Talley completed the committee. Anderson and Talley work with Robert Moore, a professor of chemistry; Arrington and Powell work with John Matson, an assistant professor of chemistry; Dong and Nichols work with Kevin Edgar, a professor of sustainable biomaterials; and Mondschein and Sirrine work with Timothy Long, a professor of chemistry and the director of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute.

The students expect that the skills they honed throughout the planning process will pay dividends throughout their careers.

“This experience gave us all these different skills that you may not get just from going to class and doing your research, and that you can apply to a job later on,” Nichols said.

Mondschein agreed. “There are so many little minor details that you would never get any other way than doing it yourself,” he said. 

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