Reflecting on the Science Undergraduate Research Conference (SURC 2023)

Sravanti Uppaluri

Conferences offer opportunities for scientists to share their work, get feedback for it, and find new avenues of exploration. The Science Undergraduate Research Conference (SURC) hosted by Azim Premji University in December 2023 offered this experience to undergraduate students from across India pursuing science research. In this article, one of the organisers of the conference shares how students at this stage of education can benefit from such events. 

SURC 2023 Title image

On the 8th and 9th of December 2023, Azim Premji University organized a conference for undergraduate science students. This was the 2nd iteration of SURC (the first one ran before the COVID-19 pandemic). After the conference was over, we asked ourselves what the conference had accomplished. Since such a conference is rare, and perhaps the only such event in the country, we felt it could be useful to share our insights with the larger community of undergraduate mentors and educators.

The conference ran over two days and included nearly 130 undergraduate and postgraduate students from 23 institutions across the country. We invited students to submit abstracts from physics, biology, chemistry, maths, and computer science. We included early master’s students to ensure that we had sufficient entries — many colleges in the country cannot provide sufficient support for research until the postgraduate level. However, we were heartened to see that we had many entries from undergraduate students from colleges in small towns and metros alike who had worked on original ideas. About 100 students were chosen to either give 10-minute talks or present posters.

All sessions were interdisciplinary and included discussions from the audience members. Plenary speakers, Sumanta Bagchi (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) and D Indumathi (The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai) gave engaging talks offering insights into their areas of research at a level that was appropriate for undergraduate students. The audience was captivated and we heard many whispers among students: Wow! If only physics were taught this way all the time”; I can’t believe microbes are connected to climate change”.

D Indumathi, a professor at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences giving a plenary talk

The posters and talks by student participants covered original research work from a wide range of areas, including coding theory, antibiotic resistance, population dynamics, and simulations of the use of AI for speech recognition. We specifically wanted to encourage interdisciplinary discussions to prevent students from getting locked into a specific disciplinary mindset, or interest at such an early stage. We did this by keeping all sessions mixed, with each session having representation from all research areas. Posters were not positioned by subject, so that participants walking through the hall would be exposed to varied topics – from honey bees, graph theory, to astrobiology.

The presentations revealed that the context and how undergraduate science research is being conducted in the country are just as varied. Many students were presenting a smaller chunk of a larger question being addressed by a graduate student, some were presenting work that originated from their coursework, and others presented work they had done in their own time and out of their own interest. We were pleasantly surprised by the breadth, depth and originality of the work.

An interactive poster session with interdisciplinary discussions

We also experimented with several other aspects of doing science by conducting workshops that allowed participants to appreciate science in tangible and sometimes tactile ways. The workshop titles and descriptions offered for participation are given below.

  1. The Biology and Chemistry of Cooking: Do cultural recipes also follow scientific pathways?
  2. DIY Microscope: Craft a pocket tool and scale the captivating world of micro-organisms.
  3. Basic Google Earth and GIS Mapping: Basic Google Earth and GIS mapping using Open-source software for STEM students.
  4. Nature Writing for Children: Learn the essentials of nature writing for children, and to cultivate new ideas for books and stories.
  5. Thinking Hands: Make frames and play with soap to learn more about the geometry of the surfaces formed.
  6. Make Art with Physics!: Create art using physical phenomena — paint using the physics of viscous flow, take Schlieren photographs and learn how to make flutes.

Students were extremely appreciative of the workshop experiences. Many students had not even thought about science as being present in their everyday lives, and that their knowledge of science could connect to art, music, or even be woven into children’s literature. We felt, on reflection, that these activities could be extended for future iterations. 

Participants discussing the DIY microscope in a conference workshop

We found that the number of entries from biology and allied fields was significantly higher than other disciplines (physics, chemistry, computer science, and mathematics). Whether this is a reflection of the relative proportion of UG research being conducted in the country is unclear. We would have liked to place a greater emphasis on the environment and climate given the urgency and potential for interdisciplinary studies in this area.

A small number of enthusiastic UG faculty also attended. Faculty quickly connected over the common issues stemming from UG research, and it became apparent that future iterations of the SURC conference would do well to include sessions exclusively for UG faculty on research and pedagogy. 

We provided informal avenues for students from different institutions to mingle, like stargazing, birdwatching, and even karaōke. Many students commented positively on the importance we placed on punctuality and organisation — we felt that professional and ethical standards of conduct were important aspects for young people to see and imbibe. We had over 40 enthusiastic student volunteers from our own institution engaging in the conference at all organizational levels, from scheduling to accommodation.

We asked ourselves what we achieved after the conference. Why should 18 – 22-year-olds have rigorous training and exposure to research and research methods? Several answers come to mind that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Early training is important for those who are preparing for a career in research. However important skills may be gained from research even by those who do not plan on continuing in full-time research.

SURC provides undergraduate students a rare platform to communicate their work to an audience from varied backgrounds. They also gain exposure to (1) a wide range of ingenious DIY solutions people have adopted (which are perhaps more common at this level of training, given the limitation in resources) for experiments, (2) the significance of and access to local issues such as lake pollution, traffic, urbanisation etc., and (3) how scientific conferences run.

We would like to call on the larger community of undergraduate educators and mentors to participate in future iterations of the conference, by encouraging students and colleagues to participate, providing suggestions for improving the event, or even hosting the event.