Students create value between classroom, lab and the world outside

January 06, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Opportunities can crop up at any moment and in the unlikeliest of places, but they are also cultivated by forward-thinkers seeking to reap other-than-market-variety success.

Penn State students in several of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences' intercollege graduate degree programs and graduate student groups are doing exactly that — creating their own opportunities for professional and academic advancement, research collaboration and fund-sourcing, as well as getting out and having a little fun with some like-minded people.

“There have been collaborations and papers and huge projects that have come out of these sorts of gatherings, but you have to build the relationships before those things can happen.”

— Rebecca Heinig, graduate student and president,
Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association

Doctoral candidates Aliana Britson, Arkarachai "Chai" Fungtammasan, and Rebecca Heinig are presidents, respectively, of the Ecology Graduate Student Organization (EGSO), Genomix (the Bioinformatics and Genomics Student Organization) and the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association (CGSA) — each of which is run by students for their own collective benefit.

"In a nutshell, we represent the students," Britson said. "Our primary mission is to be a representative of, and a resource for, the students."

"We got the idea after holding our first retreat," Fungtammasan said, “that instead of having just one event once a year, maybe we could start a club to organize similar things on a more regular basis."

"There were lots of great things going on around us, but we were concerned that graduate students were getting lost in the shuffle," Heinig said. “We wanted to give our students a voice."

Ecology Graduate Student Organization

Through the Ecology Graduate Student Organization, Britson explained, students are represented "on all the committees for the Ecology program: the faculty committee, the programming committee, the curriculum committee; we have representatives in all of these areas to make sure that the students are engaged and so that any suggestions or concerns — requests for additions or changes to the curriculum, grievances or anything of that nature — can be addressed."

The group also raises and manages funds for sending members to research conferences to present their work and gain exposure, for bringing in well-known faculty for presentations and networking, and for organizing extracurricular activities.

"We manage the Frank A. Andersen Travel Award, which helps fund students' traveling to the conference of their choice," Britson said, "and we have also helped fund people through UPAC to go to conferences. We host a speaker series each spring where we bring in well-known faculty to present their research and network with students, and we organize a retreat every January or February — where we all spend a weekend in the woods in a cabin at Black Moshannon State Park — and a picnic every fall where we welcome our new students."

In addition, members of the EGSO pool their resources and experience to help each other find and apply for research grants.

"We have lots of students who apply for EPA STAR Fellowships or National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships," Britson explained, "and so we'll host a session so potential applicants can talk with the past recipients to see how they framed their proposals, what they think helped get them the awards, or — if no one is around for that — we'll have a larger, general session so we can try to point students in the right direction."


Like the EGSO, the Genomix club makes a point of hosting speakers from other institutions, and also organizes presentations by past members, workshops and seminars by bioinformatics and genomics (BG) program faculty, and an annual retreat.

"We hold a retreat once a year," Fungtammasan said, "where we showcase our research, get faculty and students to interact more with each other and learn more about each other's research, and have some fun together."

Bioinformatics and genomics graduate students and faculty attending poster session, eating food and networking

Genomix members mingle, eat, and share their research with other graduate students and faculty from the Bioinformatics and Genomics (BG) program at the 2013 BG Retreat.

IMAGE: Samarth Rangavittal

"We also invite guest speakers from outside the University to give talks about their research," he continued, "and we have student talks where recent graduates discuss their ups and downs in the program and what they're doing moving forward. We have seminars, too — several times a year — and professional development talks where we invite faculty members to present on topics such as how to give presentations, how to apply for postdoc jobs, how to make connections at conferences."

“Of course, most important,” Fungtammasan said, “are the collaborations and the transfer of knowledge and experience from older generations of BG students to the present generation that happen in the context of the Genomix club."

Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association

The Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association also offers many of these same opportunities to its members — guest speakers, travel funding, grant-writing resources — and it arranges professional development and training sessions based on members' requests.

"We're bringing in people from outside academia to talk about job opportunities," Heinig said, "and we're having technology training to teach people additional skills they need to succeed; we generally feel like our members are pretty good at taking care of their research, and we need to give them something extra."

The group also organizes extracurricular activities, but with the common theme of being decidedly unacademic and non-scientific.

"We arrange trivia nights and other fun events for the students — activities to get people out of the lab and talking about non-lab things,” Heinig said. “A lot of what we're doing here isn't just research — it's making connections, and that's hard to do that when people get cubbyholed at their computers; they're very focused and busy — which is good — but if you can get people out of their offices and into a different setting, a lot of times really great conversations can happen. There have been collaborations and papers and huge projects that have come out of these sorts of gatherings, but you have to build the relationships before those things can happen."

"It takes work to maintain that," she said, "but it's just as important as the work that we're doing in the classroom and in the lab."

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Last Updated August 10, 2015