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Graduate students gain experience, advice at annual event

Delve into the presentations from the University of Delaware’s recent Graduate Research Forum, and you’ll get a preview of the big thinkers and problem solvers of the future. 

The forum, sponsored by the Graduate Student Government (GSG) in partnership with the Office of Graduate and Professional Education, brought together dozens of the University’s doctoral and master’s students for a day of idea-sharing at Clayton Hall Conference Center on April 28. 

Keying on the theme “It’s About Time: Understanding the Past, Engaging the Present and Creating the Future,” graduate students from each of UD’s seven colleges presented short talks and posters that captured the sense of urgency as well as the excitement of discovery and innovation that drives graduate scholarship and creative activity. 

On the agenda were such brain-bending subjects as giant planet formation to planetary gear bearing failure in wind turbines, the gender differences in primary school attendance in Nigeria to community participation in climate change adaptation in San Andrés Island, Colombia, the use of Frizzled7-targeted nanoparticles to combat triple negative breast cancer to the use of tissue culture to support the future of threatened oak species.

A series of panels on topics such as “The Natural World: From Under the Sea to Outer Space” featured students from multiple disciplines as both speakers and engaged audience members. 

Ann Ardis, senior vice provost for graduate and professional education, applauded the students for venturing outside of their field of focus and “asking the critically composed question.” 

“Conferences are opportunities to speak to other experts,” Ardis said. “It’s about finding your public voice — providing opportunities to present your research and to celebrate it, but also to talk across disciplines and to get your work across to general audiences as well as to specialists.”

The panel on the socio-economic impacts of emerging technology and development put that advice into action, as they ventured into drone technology to immigration issues. 

Drones have the potential to reduce the cost of bridge inspections, said Matija Radovic, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering who is specializing in bridge engineering. But the technology also has a darker side.

You can program a drone with 10 lines of code, Radovic said, but previously, drones could not comprehend what they see, and do “intelligent flying.” However, scientists have solved that challenge, and now an object can be recognized by a drone and have meaning.

“Billions will be poured into this in the future. ‘Man time is over. It’s drone time,’” Radovic said, altering a line from Lord of the Rings.

“The scary thing is — you can start applying this to almost anything in our experience,” Radovic added. “Where do we go from here?” 

Privacy concerns, abuse and misuse of the technology, and outdated policies must all be on the agenda, he said.

Benjamin Attia spoke about the “right to light” — the right to install solar panels and the right to the light necessary for their performance — as vertical land development occurs. 

Solar rights conflicts already have occurred in California, said Attia, who is proposing a community dispute resolution process — getting homeowners to sit down together to resolve disputes versus taking people to court. He found this simple bargaining transaction, at the neighborhood level, to be both socially and economically superior to legal action. 

“The cost could be as cheap as a slice of pie,” he said. 

With waves of migrants flooding into Europe, Aida Odobasic, a doctoral student in economics in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, is exploring immigration and the labor market, and whether there is “an intermarriage premium” for immigrant men. 

Some data indicates that immigrants married to natives of a country make more than immigrants married to other immigrants, said Odobasic, who is from Bosnia-Herzegovina. She points to the higher rate of integration as immigrants married to natives gain the language, culture and behavioral norms of the host nation, plus access to greater human capital — the “native network” — when an immigrant marries into a family. 

To isolate the effect, Odobasic is applying multiple approaches to data from Germany, which had the highest influx of migrants ever recorded in its history in 2015 — almost 2 million people. 

Victoria Sanchez, a doctoral candidate in political science, is sorting out why certain countries such as Chile and Sweden shifted away from nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, while other nations, including Vietnam, China and India, moved ahead with nuclear plans. 

With data from 49 countries in hand, she’s looking at a range of factors, from geographic proximity and economic cost to public opinion about climate change and energy security, and how democracy factors into the process. 

“Most democratic states were able to abandon nuclear fully because of the large responsiveness to the public,” Sanchez said. 

NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates

Keynote speaker Mark Fiegener, project officer at the National Science Foundation, shared findings from the Survey of Earned Doctorates, which collects data on the education pathways, demographics and post-graduation plans of research doctorate recipients from U.S. universities. In 2014, a total of 433 institutions and 54,070 doctoral recipients participated in the survey.

In 1974, 58 percent of doctorates in the U.S. were awarded in science and engineering. Now, three-fourths of doctoral graduates are from those fields, Feigener said. 

In 2014, over 80 percent of UD’s 194 doctoral recipients were in science and engineering fields, with engineering the largest sector. From 2004 to 2014, UD’s percentage of doctorates awarded in engineering, education, the social sciences and physical sciences was higher than its peer Carnegie-classified research universities, with engineering a particular strength. 

The unemployment rate for science and engineering doctoral holders is often under 2 percent compared to the U.S. labor force of 5 to 8 percent. 

“UD is in the highest tier and looks very strong within that tier,” Feigener said of UD’s post-graduation data among Carnegie-classified research universities. “You’ve made a nice decision to build a brand on,” he told the students. 

Panel offers career advice 

An expert panel, moderated by Joseph Brodie, Graduate Student Government president and a doctoral candidate in marine science and policy, gave students advice on career issues.

• What’s most valuable for networking? Jen Biddle, assistant professor of marine biosciences, credits the NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) she was part of in grad school for helping her understand the importance of working with “shallower” connections than just the “deep” ones with her adviser and group. “Wide, shallow connections are valuable.”

• How do you develop your personal brand? “Know yourself — if you don’t know yourself, you can’t teach others,” said George Irvine, director of corporate programs and partnerships in Lerner College. “Work on your elevator speech. Distill it to bullet points and convey it succinctly and with passion. And do it on social media.” 

• What’s your best piece of advice? “The world is a complicated place and you need experience beyond the academic. It helps in how you interact with others,” said T. W. Fraser Russell, Allan P. Colburn Professor of Chemical Engineering Emeritus. After graduating from the University of Alberta, he turned down an opportunity at the Banff Springs Hotel to work at an oil refinery. “That year, Hollywood came to me, with the filming of The River of No Return with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. If I had stayed at the hotel, I would have been the person to teach Marilyn Monroe how to swim!” 

• How important are publications; letters of recommendation? “Publications are evidence of success,” said Mary Watson, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “If you have one amazing publication as first author that can be more powerful than 20 publications in little-known journals.” About letters of recommendation: “What part of the letter can or can’t I write yet? Think about that, and work on those things you can do better. Work hard and make it easy for people to support you.” 

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