Planning for and Presenting at the Chicago Area Undergraduate Research Symposium

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Jonic Zhehao Zhu &

Leslie Bonilla

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Part 1: Inside the undergraduate team that ran the entire conference

This April, fifty minutes away from Northwestern’s Evanston campus at the Feinberg School of Medicine, 120 student presenters presented their research projects at one of the largest annual undergraduate research conferences in the country. The event is also entirely student-run.

Five months in advance, armed with a laundry list of tasks and several thousand dollars to carry them out, a dozen undergraduate students began planning this year’s Chicago Area Undergraduate Research Symposium, or CAURS.

Northwestern senior Yufan Yang and dual degree fifth-year Christian Bourdon were members of the inter-school board, which also included students from Loyola University, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Roosevelt University and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Fidak Khan, another Northwestern senior, led the team.

The freedom was welcome, according to Bourdon.

“It was literally just all us—which was awesome,” he said. “It’s sort of just students providing this experience for other students, which is the whole point.”

Board members settled finances, set up the venue and fended off miffed professors, along with the other tasks they spread out among themselves.

In addition to booking the keynote speaker, Northwestern Chemistry professor Thomas Meade, Yang sent out dozens of emails to professors, asking if they were available to judge abstracts.

“What was really cool, actually, was that professors would respond,” he said, and laughed. “Most of the time, they’re not inclined to respond to undergrads. A lot of them responded and signed their first names, so it was like, ‘Oh my god, this is—wow!’”

Bourdon ran the oral presentations the day of the symposium, but before then, had been tasked with organizing the furniture, equipment and catering, alongside his work setting up the event website.

“We sort of just made everything pretty, Squarespaced it out,” he said. “It looked really good! We made some galleries, made sure everything was functional and easy to use.”

The board members also read through and re-formatted about 150 submitted abstracts, eventually accepting about 120. In an effort to make the symposium accessible for young and less-experienced undergraduates, there was no cap on the number of accepted presenters.

“CAURS is like a learning experience. For a lot of people it might be the first abstract they write, and so even if you get rejected, we give feedback on why,” said Yang. “We’re not trying to be exclusive—we actually want people to get something in terms of their research career and research development.”

Bourdon added that students could feel more at ease without the “enormous pressure” of presenting at a university-run symposium, enhancing the event’s accessibility.

Northwestern senior Dani Lewittes, who presented at the symposium, said that the experience was both exciting and helpful. She also presented her project, on a molecular structure helpful to inform drug discovery, at the Norris Undergraduate Research EXPO.

“I think it’s a pretty fun experience, just being able to bond with others over what you do, and tell them what your whole life is about,” she said. “[CAURS and the EXPO] were both positive experiences, and I got practice for the real world… Learning from the experience was the most important thing for me.”

For Yang, helping plan the symposium was a way to support other students.

“Undergraduate research opens a lot of doors,” he said. “I gained a lot from my research journey and my experiences, and it’s like, what can I do to give back, and help other people?”


Part 2: How a single email led a Northwestern undergraduate to her passion


Northwestern senior Dani Lewittes, who’s pursuing an accelerated 4-year B.S./M.S. program in chemistry, presented a poster at CAURS. Her work focused on intramolecular hydrogen bonding in aromatic amines, a molecular structure that could help researchers discover new drugs.

She said attendees were friendly and interested in the undergraduate researchers’ presentations.

“[There were] people walking around, judges coming up and writing secret things on their clipboards,” Lewittes said. “People generally understand what you do. They are very receptive about how passionate you are about your project.”

Lewittes had a head start on research when her freshman year chemistry instructor, Fred Northrup, sent out an email calling for research assistants.

“I was so excited to do more chemistry! As if that was even possible [as a freshman],” she said.

Her proactivity has since turned into a devotion to research. She worked with Northrup and Owen Priest to explore physical organic chemistry.

“At first it was rough to catch up,” Lewittes said, as she’d only taken general chemistry classes before stepping into the lab. “But with the mentoring of the student before me, I was able to learn as I went along.”

Lewittes’ experience was unique in that her mentor was also an undergraduate, rather than a graduate student, so she was able to get more hands-on experience.

“My project felt entirely like my own,” she sad. “I felt that much prouder of it because I was able to get here without any help from graduate students. I loved it. It made me a better learner and a better chemist.”

Lewittes hopes to work in the food and personal care industry after graduation. She credited her undergraduate research experience for giving her the technical know-how, independence and problem-solving skills necessary to move forward with her career.

Though the research opportunity she latched onto was “just the one being advertised,” Lewittes said, she did “end up falling love with it.”