At Winter Poster Session, Eager Student Interns Present Research for the First Time

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; photos by Richard Frederickson, staff photographer
Photo of intern Ishika Srivastava standing at her poster and explaining her project to another student

Despite her initial concerns about her project, first-time presenter Ishika Srivastava quickly found that her research captured the interest of many visitors. After the fact, she said, “I’m glad that I was able to do this.”

Butterflies in the stomach, a cold sweat, a feeling of dread: most of us know and fear the nervousness that accompanies public speaking. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to see apparently fearless Werner H. Kirsten student interns speak at NCI at Frederick’s WHK Student Intern Program Winter Poster Session.

The event gave the dozen or so high school students a chance to present their hard-won research to NCI at Frederick staff. For many, it was their first time speaking about their projects in public. Presenting at a poster session is considered a rite of passage in the scientific community, and while some interns initially were nervous, excitement prevailed.

“It’s very fun,” said intern Ishika Srivastava. “I feel like this is a really good opportunity because I was able to practice my presentation skills.”

Srivastava added that, before the event, she did feel anxious. She was especially concerned that visitors wouldn’t find her project, an analysis of the need for more Werner H. Kirsten mentors, as interesting as other students’ research. However, those feelings quickly vanished.

“Everyone that I presented to has said that it’s really different and they’ve learned a lot from it,” she said.

Richard Ma, another first-time presenter, said he too felt somewhat nervous at first. However, he also pointed out that explaining his project, part of a study to delete the TUT2/4/7 genes, helped him better understand the work of his mentor’s laboratory.

Ma dealt with his nervousness by reviewing his project’s data several times to become more familiar. If a visitor’s question stumped him, he had a confident, straightforward solution.

“I simply just say, ‘I don’t know,’” he said.

Another intern, Chris Hu, overcame his anxiety despite discovering that he had accidentally omitted minor information from his poster.

“That was really bad,” he said with a laugh. “[It] threw me off my game.”

Realizing it was too late to fix the mistake, Hu ignored it and focused on giving a good presentation instead. He also spent a few minutes away from his poster to watch the few interns who were veteran presenters, which helped him to better understand the poster session format and avoid attracting a crowd before he was ready. During his own presentations, he tried to project an air of confidence and used talking points that he had prepared to keep himself on track.

“Act confident, and you’ll feel … that you know what you’re doing,” he said.

Many of the scientists attending the event made time to encourage the interns after listening to their presentations, offering advice about the projects, scientific procedures, and academic pursuits. A few also recalled their first poster presentations.

Walter Hubert, Ph.D., scientific advisor to the Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern Program, was a graduate student in Wisconsin when he delivered his first, a negative-data project that disproved a more senior scientist.

“Not only that, but I … was standing at my poster when the person whom I proved wrong came by,” Hubert said. “He wasn’t apologetic, but he said he was understanding. … That was probably the biggest relief.”

Hubert added that, while the experience was intimidating, he and the scientist had a good discussion that left him feeling gratified about helping to improve the scientist’s understanding.

“You are the expert on what is shown [on your poster],” Hubert advised the first-time presenters. “You are in complete control, and never doubt this.”

Richard Ma (center-right) advised interns who are first-time presenters to “just keep doing what they’re doing in the lab,” “perform the experiments as best they can,” and take chances “to do some studying on the side.” He believes that doing all three helped him prepare for his presentation.Chris Hu (center) said the poster session was “pretty relaxing” after he sidelined his anxiety. By the end of the event, he was confidently explaining his project, an assessment of clickbait-style headlines and principles for writing scientific headlines.Selena Srirattanapirom speaks with Walter Hubert, Ph.D., about her project, a study of copper’s role in the immune system’s response to invaders.Lea Jih-Vieira’s project analyzed WHK intern demographics and encouraged NCI at Frederick staff to consider the WHK Student Intern Program from a new perspective.