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Getting first prize at the UURAF: Our 3 winners tell us how

Three MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory (PRL) undergrads won first prize at this year’s University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF). 

The UURAF gives MSU undergrads the chance to present their work in a public setting, which allows them to gain presentation experience, interact and answer questions from audience members, and receive feedback from judges. The best presenter in each category was awarded $100. 

Here are our three winners, followed by excerpts from an interview following the event:

  • Hope Hersh, with the Benning lab, has a degree in Biochemistry and just added another in Plant Biology. She has worked with cutting edge gene editing technology (called CRISPR) to help us understand more about how plant seeds make oil.
  • Cassie Dutcher, a Biochemistry and Biotechnology sophomore, is helping the Kerfeld lab to reengineer a protein structure found in bacteria so it could be used to produce useful materials, such as rubber (the only way to create it right now is by using trees and or petroleum.) from carbon dioxide and sunlight.
  • Michael Das, a Biochemistry and Biotechnology senior, is in the Howe lab, researching how plants defend against insects. His research found out that plant defenses against herbivores improves at higher temperatures.


What got you interested in science?

MICHAEL: I got first interested in science in middle school. I had a really good science teacher who let us do all our own experiments. Up to that point, science was about knowing and memorize stuff. She let us explore, which got me interested in science, and I stuck with it.

CASSIE: I wanted to a doctor, at first. During high school, I went to the Battle Creek Area Math + Science Center and took a biotechnology class. We got to run gels and see science applications, and I thought that was something I want to do.

HOPE: It is really cool that you got to do that in high school! I have always been interested in science and math. I wanted to go to medical school. Part of that ambition was to work in a lab to get the experience on my resume. But as time went on, I thought I might not be cut out for med school, and that’s ok. I actually forgot about it and fell in love with working in the Benning lab. Now I can’t stay out of there!

Cassie being presented her award
Cassie Dutcher. By Trumpie Photography

What do you think gave you the edge at the UURAF?

HOPE: I sat through a few presentations. Without sounding too confident, I think I was on a next level of understanding my science. I went into complex biochemistry behind what was going on, at a level the other presentations didn’t reach. I also spent a lot of time and effort making my presentation, practicing by myself and at a lab meeting. I went in with the mindset that I wanted to win first place!

MICHAEL: Yeah, I agree that having a good understanding of all the science helps, not just what happened in your experiments. Being able to explain what the experiments mean and why you were doing them, why they are significant in the big picture, that really helped.

Hope with her award by Sparty statue
Hope Hersh with another champ. By Ryan Holland

HOPE: If you have a better understanding, you can answer audience questions better. That was important for the judges.

CASSIE: I actually didn’t think my presentation went terribly, but I didn’t think that I would win either! I could have been more prepared. But then, one of the positive comments was about how well I could talk about the applications of what we’re doing, and that showed the importance of what we are doing.

On the flipside, what would you do better next time?

CASSIE: I could have presented it better. I went over my poster ahead of time, but I never presented it fully. I was able to explain everything well, but tended to forget to address something or the other. And it varied from presentation to presentation. It got better as I went along.

So, here is what I would do next time: I would practice, walk through the poster with others, including people who have an understanding of the topic, like people in the lab, because if they have questions, they will probably be things that other people will ask.

I think even if you don’t come in prepared to win, it’s a good learning experience that you should do anyway. It’s great to get feedback and learn what you can do better and what you’ve been doing well, and also just get the experience speaking.

Michael being presented his award
Michael Das. By Trumpie Photography

MICHAEL: I would add: preparing the presentation to people who are not familiar with the topic. My discussions were with other people in the lab who are familiar with it. That’s really good in a lot of aspects, but when you get to the poster presentation, you are talking to people who aren’t necessarily scientists. So you have to adjust how you are presenting everything on the fly.

(INTERVIEWER) Do you feel that, what you are talking about right now, the ability to talk to people, is that something you learned with experience presenting, or is it just because you’ve become more familiar with the science?

MICHAEL: I think, this time last year, the work I presented at the UURAF was stuff I had done with a postdoc, so I wasn’t as familiar with all the research. Whereas a lot of the work I’ve done this time was independent work, and that made it easier for me to understand everything.

CASSIE: I think that would help, because I mean I’m not independent right now. I feel if I had been I would be better prepared. Eventually, I’ll be more independent.

HOPE: I compared CRISPR to Photoshop. Every slide tried to not make it such complex science and relate it to something that’s easily understood, and I think that I would add more of that. A lot of people liked it. I always make a point to present to my boyfriend, who doesn’t know anything about science. He is always so confused by what I’m doing, so I make sure he can understand it before I go present.

Ultimately our science affects the world. You need to be able to relate your work in layman’s terms.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

CASSIE: I’m not really sure. I want to go to grad school, and I am considering a career in academic research. But I’m not decided 100%. I think research is nice, because you have a lot of freedom with it. You could do research in so many different fields.

MICHAEL: I’m in the same boat. I’m really into research, and I’m planning to go to grad school, but I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to industry, eventually, or where else. I just really like research, so I want to be involved in that. Research is like doing puzzles. It’s a really complex puzzle where you’re trying to figure out what’s happening and why. And nobody knows the answer, which I think is cool.

HOPE: I’m applying to grad school in the fall. And I definitely want to get my PhD. And go into industry and be head scientist at, like, Monsanto or Dow Agro, something like that. I want to be the one doing the research that matters, not just pipetting volumes all day, doing repetitive stuff. I want to be designing research and doing things that actually change the world.


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