Happening today: Biology undergrads’ time to shine

Image of Pat Chow-Fraser and Tyler Charlebois’ sitting on a bench laughing

Professor Pat Chow-Fraser (left) who turned a scheduling nightmare into the department's biggest celebration and her former student Tyler Charlebois’ (right) welcome you to the 20th annual Bus.

Pat Chow-Fraser’s solution to a problem turned into a rite of passage for thousands of biology students.

Fourth-year undergrads used to defend their senior theses and capstone projects behind closed doors in front of supervisory committees. With two or three faculty members on each committee for 50 or 60 students, scheduling meetings around final exams and the end of the year was a problem.

“A logistical nightmare,” says Chow-Fraser, who took over as chair of the Biology Undergraduate Studies Committee in 2004.

Not to mention a missed opportunity: As a PhD student at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, Chow-Fraser had enjoyed end-of-year research talks delivered by senior students in front of the entire department. The day ended with a reception and awards ceremony. It was a communal, celebratory, culture-defining event.

So Chow-Fraser adopted that the model for a Biology Undergraduate Symposium in April 2005. Sixty-nine students presented their research in the newly opened Michael DeGroote Centre for Learning and Discovery.

The organizing committee was small but mighty: Chow-Fraser, communications coordinator Wendy Burston and admin assistant Kathy McIntosh.

While the venue remains the same, the number of students has more than doubled. This year’s Biology Undergraduate Symposium will have 142 thesis and senior project students showcasing their work during the full-day Biology Undergraduate Symposium on April 11.

It’s Tyler Charlebois’ second time helping organize the symposium. The undergraduate program assistant is a Biology grad and one of Chow-Fraser’s former students.

(She was a tough marker, he says.

Tough but fair, adds Chow-Fraser.)

Chow-Fraser can’t pass up the opportunity to point out that presenting at symposia and conferences is a transferable, life-long skill.

The 20th annual symposium is among the department’s largest annual events. And it’s a definite celebration, with family, friends, classmates, faculty, postdocs and grad students sitting in on presentations and filling the halls.

Each student gets a maximum of 15 minutes to present their research and answer questions.

Like the number of students taking part in the day, the organizing committee’s grown over the years. Planning begins before the academic year starts in September.

Rooms are booked and the organizing committee’s recruited. This year’s team includes Charlebois, Ian Dworkin, Rebecca Woodworth, Jon Stone, Susan Dudley, Mihaela Georgescu, Lovaye Kajiura, Scott Hughes, Sonia Rehal, Rebecca Doyle, Krupa Patel, Wynter Sutchy and Natalie Belu.

Work ramps up around mid-February when registration forms go out, abstracts come back for review and judges are recruited.

“It’s great to see all the students gather in one place on one day with their supervisors, family and friends to showcase their research and celebrate what they’ve accomplished,” says Charlebois.

For Chow-Fraser, the symposium is also a way for faculty to give thanks. Students in capstone courses make big-time contributions to faculty research programs.

“Undergraduate students are a point of pride for all of us and a source of future graduate students,” says Chow-Fraser. “I like to think that students who’ve completed a thesis or capstone course and then presented at the Biology Undergraduate Symposium have experienced the best of what Mac has to offer.”

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