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SciFest returns, showcasing student research

The culmination of this summer’s undergraduate scientific research projects reached the limelight at Brandeis’s 10th Annual SciFest on Aug. 5. Ninety-three undergraduate students presented their work to the Brandeis scientific community in the first major in-person poster session since March 2020. While the majority of presenters were Brandeis students, SciFest also welcomed work conducted by students from nearby universities working with Brandeis faculty. 

Steven Karel, Co-Director of the Brandeis Division of Science, describes the core purpose of SciFest, saying, “It’s really about engaging the students with other students and the community as an audience.” 

Brandeis student Albert Countryman from the Living Patterns Lab describes the value of presenting at SciFest, saying, “It was so gratifying to be in a position of being able to take my own work as real for the first time.” 

In order to ensure that this year’s SciFest was a success, Karel cited several cautionary measures put in place to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Presenters were required to test negative for COVID-19 within three days of SciFest. Moreover, presenters utilized Gerstenzang in addition to the traditionally used Shapiro Science Center as a space to set up posters, allowing for sufficient social distancing. 

The pandemic posed many challenges for student research during the summer of 2020. Karel describes how Brandeis undergraduates had already submitted proposals for summer fellowships and grant money, however there was still uncertainty regarding lab capacity. Despite SciFest being canceled and the dubious return of undergraduates in lab space during that summer, the Division of Science still awarded monetary grants to support student work as they modified to computational/remote projects, Karel recalls. 

“We didn’t really want to make students present on projects that had been interrupted and restarted,” Karel explains. 

Ultimately, many students presented the following April at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at Brandeis, Karel notes. A product of the predominantly remote undergraduate research contributions was some “pretty innovative projects…There was a Zoom journal club that the PhD students organized with a bunch of the undergraduates,” he says. 

Although virtual poster sessions had proven to be successful in the past, “…coming into 2021, we were determined to have an in-person event. Statistics looked good in the summer,” Karel says about this year’s SciFest.

Having 25 years of experience in supportive research and administration at Brandeis, Karel remarks upon the motive for creating an event like SciFest. “The first SciFest in 2011 was the first big event that the Division organized to bring together undergraduates.” In spirit of Brandeis’s interdisciplinary academic values, the goal for SciFest was to “try to use undergraduate research to make it a way for students across departments to connect,” he explains. 

As the labs reestablish full capacity, Karel comments on relaxed coronavirus protocol during the summer, saying, “I think really the key for the labs is to find a policy that everyone is comfortable with. It’s really about respect for your co-workers.” 

Moving forward, Karel hopes to “get more students involved [in research at Brandeis].” Part of that goal requires adequate funding to support summer projects, for which events like SciFest play a large role, Karel says. 

All in all, what this year’s SciFest unmistakably proves is that undergraduate research is a “tradition and mainstay of the education at [Brandeis],” Karel affirms.

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