Hard Science With Just a Touch of Procrastination on Student Research Day

OCTOBER 28, 2015 - Thirty-two students in Biomedical Graduate Education (BGE) programs at Georgetown University Medical Center presented their research during the 30th Annual Student Research Day.

This year’s event consisted of oral presentations, a poster session and a keynote speech by Jorge Cham, PhD, founder and creator of the wildly popular PHD Comics.

“Student Research Day gives students the opportunity to give a talk or present a poster, get feedback from people outside of their department or even field, and maybe even form collaborations,” said Monica Javidnia, president of the Medical Center Graduate Student Organization (MCGSO).

The keynote speech was a new addition to the event’s programming. While BGE has hosted panel discussions in the past, Cham’s speech provided some levity after a day chock-full of research presentations.

“For Student Research Day, since there was already hard science and research being featured all day during the oral presentations and posters, we wanted to wrap up the evening with a lighter, less academic finish from someone who offered his hilarious perspective on misery, hope and academia,” said Caroline Goon, director of recruitment and career services for BGE.

‘Procrastination Gets A Bad Rep’

Cham, who earned his PhD in robotics from Stanford University, titled his talk “The Power of Procrastination.”

“I think that procrastination gets a bad rep, because procrastination is often confused with its close cousin, laziness. But laziness is just when you don’t want to do anything. Procrastination is when you don’t want to do it right now,” Cham riffed.

PHD Comics is a product of Cham’s procrastination while he was in grad school. After the strip became extremely popular among PhD students at Stanford, it started receiving attention from PhD students across the country. PhD Comics has nearly 12,000 likes on Facebook and over 75,000 followers on Twitter.

“Through his [Cham’s] hilarious webcomic, he has been able to bring to life what every graduate student experiences,” said Goon. “Being underpaid, being an overachiever, the perpetual search for free food, joining random groups on campus and seeking the approval of their advisor.”

Many of Cham’s comics focus on the guilt associated with procrastinating. In one of his recent comics, a character is watching TV, eating popcorn and smiling. The next frame takes place one hour later. The character is still in front of the TV, but now he’s thinking, “I should be working, I should be working, I should be working…”

“I heard nothing but laughs during his talk. It was a relief to know someone had been in our shoes and there's a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Javidnia.

Despite his tongue-in-cheek take on his PhD experience, Cham said he came away from graduate school with technical skills and analytical thinking prowess that he wouldn’t have gained had he decided not to pursue his degree.

“The main message is to relax a little bit and enjoy it!” said Cham.  

Diverse Feedback

Throughout the day, 10 students gave poster presentations and 22 gave oral presentations. Faculty members judged each presentation and awards were given to the top three presenters in each category. Ivana Brekalo, a third-year graduate student in the Chemistry PhD program, took first place for her oral presentation.

Brekalo enjoyed listening to presentations by students in other disciplines; having a variety of researchers present also enabled her to think about her own research differently.

“It was incredibly rewarding to see that even people not in the field recognize the value of my research, and are as enthusiastic about it as I am,” said Brekalo. “The judges' and audience's questions were so different from what I'm used to, and so refreshing. They gave me a whole new perspective on my own work!”

Marina Solomos, also a third-year Chemistry grad student, took first place for her poster presentation on selectively growing polymorphs (or different crystalline forms).

“The goal of our research was to determine what kind of chemical reactions produce certain types of crystalline products,” said Solomos. “Knowing these interactions would help pharmaceutical companies produce only certain active, stable forms of drug compounds in their solid form.”

Finalists

The awardees for the oral and poster presentations are:

Oral Presentation:

1st - Ivana Brekalo, third-year PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry
2nd - Mackenzie Fama, third-year PhD candidate, Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience 3rd - Megan Allen, fifth-year Phd candidate, Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience  

Poster Presentation:

1st - Marina Solomos, third-year PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry
2nd - Elizabeth Koch, fourth-year PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry
3rd - Mohan Zhang, fifth-year PhD candidate, Department of Chemistry

Leigh Ann Renzulli
GUMC Communications