The Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium (GCURS), is an annual event organized by Rice University where undergrads have the opportunity to showcase their research projects to an international audience, including Rice faculty, peers from around the world, and current graduate students at Rice.
I have been part of this event from both sides, as a presenter and as a mentor. Hence, I can tell you that this is an amazing opportunity to not only present your work in an international setting, but it also serves as a great way to introduce yourself and present your skills to the recruiting faculty that might be keeping an eye on the presentations to spot talents. Moreover, it is a great opportunity to do networking with very interesting and knowledgeable people.
As the time approaches, the nerves can get to you, but you should not panic, instead, you should prepare and be ready to have an amazing experience. Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of this event:
Do your research
Especially if you are interested in applying to Rice, GCURS can be the perfect occasion to introduce yourself to the faculty at the university and to know better about their current projects. To make this conversation more natural, there are a few things you could do beforehand. First of all, identify the groups and projects that align with your interests. Be sure to take a look at their websites to grasp the general idea of their research, their current projects, and do not hesitate to prepare a couple of questions for them if you want to get more information. Keep it genuine, and do not be afraid of asking ‘too much’, faculty and current grad students would be happy to discuss with you the details about their work.
Do not miss the chance to talk with the faculty members.
Once you have surfed the websites of the different groups of the department of your interest, you are ready to confidently approach the professors and hold a quick (or extended) chat. This is an invaluable opportunity that you as a GCURS participant have. Think about how many students or applicants have the chance to talk with faculty in a more relaxed setting than an application interview. Moreover, use this as a two-way road, where the professors get to know you and your interests better, and you get to know them and their projects deeper. This will help you to get a clearer perspective on the projects that are currently being developed and determine if they are truly aligned with what you are looking for. Do not let his opportunity go to waste! Take it and do not leave it for ‘later’, everything moves fast, and the event has a tight schedule, so chances are that if you wait that later might never come.
Prepare a clear, complete, and explicit presentation
More into the presentation itself, beyond having introduction, methods, and results sections, there are a few basics to remember. Nowadays we live in a world that is extremely interdisciplinary (Rice loves this!), and while it brings a lot of benefits to the research field, it also means that you most likely will present in front of an audience with diverse backgrounds, so do not obviate that, and make sure that you spend enough time presenting the motivation, relevance, and context of your work.
By motivation and relevance, I mean that you should clearly convey what is the problem and why does it matter to solve it. And with context, there are a couple of things that you would like to keep in mind. First, you have to make sure to explain any relevant concepts that you will use throughout your presentation, this will help the public to follow along with the presentation even if it is out of their field of expertise. Second, remember to put the audience in perspective by stating clearly what is the current state of the art in the niche that you are working on and what you have contributed, or what you plan to contribute if it is still a work in progress. This will help the audience to understand what your input was.
For instance, it might not mean a lot to you if I claim that I developed an extremely flexible implantable device, but if I say that it is 10 times more flexible than the state of the art, and that it will help to reduce the immune response hence allowing a better performance of the device, then even if you do not about my field, you can understand what is different in my work and why it is relevant.
There is not an exact order to include this information in your presentation, but once you are done preparing your slides, go over them to make sure that you convey all the information and details needed, at the same time that you communicate the importance of your work.
Do not exceed your allotted time
Depending on the division that you will be presenting to, there are different time requirements, but usually the specified duration of the presentation goes around 12-15 minutes, plan accordingly to avoid exceeding the limits. Because of the nature of the event, this is a strict limit, thus if you exceed the time someone might interrupt you to indicate that your time is over and that you need to conclude, leaving you no option but to skip those gorgeous slides that you prepared and with no chance to explain those precious details that you left for the end. Therefore, to avoid this unwanted situation, try to summarize every section and identify the most relevant details that you definitely need to present.
After working so hard for so long on that project, it might seem difficult to present everything in less than 20 mins, but take the time to identify what is the essence of the project, what were the major accomplishments, and do not forget point 3: motivation, relevance, context. Do not sacrifice these three to ‘save’ time, in the end, it will be useless if you explain all the technical details that you wanted to present, but your audience does not follow along with your presentation. Keep it clear, keep it concise.
Know your project
There is no better way to be prepared for the questions round than knowing your project. This one comes easily since you have been working on it for a long time and now you know it inside out. However, there might be times where you have been working for so long that those details of the first days might not be as fresh as you would like. Two pieces of advice for this: go over the basics to refresh the concepts you might slightly forget, and make sure that you are able to explain what you include on your slides. This does not mean or guarantee that you will have an answer for every question (although you might), but you will be prepared for the most common questions and to explain those details that you could not because of time constraints, for instance.
Don’t be nervous
I know, this is easier said than done, but the GCURS should be an experience to enjoy! Remember that you are prepared, your work is done, and all that is left is for the people to know how hard you have worked and the cool things that you have developed. Do not feel pressured, remember that the audience is full of people like you, whose current interest is to share their research projects and learn about others. Try to relax, take a deep breath, and present your project with confidence.
Remember to have a wonderful and fun day, owning the spotlight, and taking advantage of the amazing opportunity that being part of GCURS represents.
About the author: Elsa Acosta De Anda is a second year Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a Fulbright grantee. Currently, her research goals involve the development of neural interfaces to tackle neurological impairments and diseases by merging the fields of electronics and medicine.