The Poster Session: Scientific Research at a Glance

On a sunny Friday in August, Schow Science Library is crammed with people. One hundred seventy-five students who spent the summer conducting in-depth research as part of the college’s Summer Science Research Program have distilled their work into 3-by-4-foot posters full of charts, diagrams and photos. Now the buzz of hundreds of individual conversations fills the space as visitors make their way from poster to poster, learning from students about climate change, spin resonance dating and quantum theory.

Kelly Tellez ’17 stands before a poster with photos of honey-colored microfossils, steel-gray shale beds and detailed maps. She answers questions and describes research she conducted with geosciences professor Phoebe Cohen. The work involved looking at microfossils of green algae from the time of the Late Devonian mass extinction event in the Kellwasser beds of Lancaster, N.Y. They found changes in fossil size, shape and abundance across the time period. The next step in their research will be to find out whether that variation is a true biological signal relating to the extinction event.

The poster presentation is “a unique way of sharing science,” says Tiku Majumder, Science Center director. “For an undergraduate doing scientific research, it’s a nice alternative to an oral presentation. It’s more friendly and open—a celebration of all their hard work.”

The poster is a common platform researchers use to present their work, especially at academic conferences. While an invited speaker might give an hour-and-a-half talk about the details of his or her findings, most researchers have only 10 minutes to explain their work. Posters offer an immediate impression of their research.

For Williams students, the posters often become the basis for coauthored academic papers and senior theses. Some 50 students coauthor scientific papers with their professors each year, which helps them to build their portfolios for graduate school.

Working closely with Majumder, Ben Augenbraun ’15 spent the summer researching the question: If one passes a particular pair of laser beams through a collection of indium atoms, what exactly will be the pattern of absorption?

Using quantum theory, Augenbraun says, physicists can independently predict what his observations ought to be. So his work acts as a stringent test of the mathematical methods used by professional theorists “and advances our understanding of quantum theory” in these complex atoms. His research also advances his senior thesis. “It was really nice to have a summer to focus solely on this work,” he says.

Cohen calls the summer research program “a real strength.” It’s less regimented than graduate school work, and Williams students can gain general experience or lay the groundwork for future projects.

There’s another benefit, too, which is easily seen in Schow as students, faculty and staff stop in front of poster after poster, asking questions and leaning in to listen. Says Cohen: “Students start to build their own intellectual community.”

Photos by the Office of Communications