CWU Health Sciences students expand horizons at national conference

  • June 10, 2024
  • David Leder

Four Central Washington University students were given a chance to kickstart their careers this spring when they attended the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in Long Beach, California.

Rhodes Van Houten, Rachel Perez, Judah Shirley, and Kimberly Biladeau — all from the CWU Department of Health Sciences — visited the Long Beach Convention Center from April 8-11, joining 4,300 other participants from around the country to present their research abstracts and engage in some valuable networking opportunities.

According to CWU Assistant Professor of Clinical Physiology Dr. Ana Freire, the annual conference provides a unique environment for the celebration and promotion of undergraduate student achievement; provides models of exemplary research, scholarship, and creative activity; and helps students develop new career-readiness skills.

“This conference is amazing because it gives students an opportunity to meet people from around the country that they wouldn’t meet anywhere else,” said Freire, who accompanied the students to California, along with Dean of Undergraduate Research Dr. Yoshiko Takahashi and Director of Office of University Student Research Dr. Hideki Takei.

“It was interesting for our students to see what other kinds of research are going on outside of our health sciences bubble,” she added. “They also got to do some networking and attend a Futures Fair, where they learned about different career opportunities and graduate programs at other universities. It was a really cool experience for them.”

Group photo at the conference

Freire thanked her colleagues, Dr. Jared Dickinson and Dr. Kelly Pritchett, for mentoring the students prior to their departure. She also gave a nod to the Office of University Student Research, the College of Education and Professional Studies, and the Department of Health Sciences for providing financial support.

All four CWU students who submitted abstracts leading up to the conference were invited to present their work, with two giving oral presentations and two delivering poster presentations.

Van Houten, a clinical physiology major, gave an oral presentation about the links between body mass index and plantar fascia inflammation. Van Houten didn’t collect the data used in the study, but they had a chance to explain why the research is valuable.

Rhodes Van Houten and Professor Ana Freire

“It was really interesting to analyze the data and look at ways it can be used in a clinical setting,” said Van Houten, who will begin serving a graduate assistant in CWU’s integrated human physiology program in the fall. “I got to explain the ‘why,’ which is what people at the conference wanted to hear. I enjoyed talking about the reasons behind this condition — which I have dealt with myself — and what can be done to prevent it.”

Van Houten’s clinical physiology classmate, Rachel Perez, also came away from NCUR with an elevated sense of purpose in her chosen field.

Her biggest takeaway, she said, was the realization that there are many different kinds of research outside of the health sciences discipline, and each one has its own intrinsic value.

“When you’re in high school, you only hear about major research projects; not the smaller ones that eventually build up to becoming major projects,” Perez said. “There’s a lot of time, money, and effort that most people never hear about, and it was cool to learn about so many people at this conference who are working behind the scenes, assisting their mentors, and building onto much larger bodies of research. It made us realize that the work we do really does matter.”

Rachel Perez discusses her poster with Dr. Ana Freire

In between listening to research presentations from an array of academic disciplines and engaging in conversations about a variety of research projects on display at NCUR, Perez gave a poster presentation on muscle transcriptome data. She explained how different genes are expressed by specific muscles — in this case, the quadriceps — and how those genes respond to different types of exercise by the research subjects.

Perez, like Van Houten, is planning to pursue an advanced degree in health sciences research after she completes her CWU degree this summer. She has been accepted into a two-year program at the University of Montana, where she will be working in a top-tier research lab.

She said attending a national conference like NCUR gave her confidence in what she has learned in her program, as well as how to apply her knowledge and curiosity as she begins her career.

“What I enjoyed most of all was walking around and having conversations about different kinds of research,” Perez said. “I loved the poster sessions because I had a chance to talk about subjects on a more intimate level. I got to ask people what they had learned and how they interpreted the data to synthesize their findings. I was surprised by how much I was able to understand, even if it wasn’t a subject I knew very much about.”

Van Houten added that it was eye-opening for them and their peers to be exposed to so many different types of research. They even got to moderate a session on English literary works.

“There were so many people and so many different kinds of research that it was kind of overwhelming,” Van Houten said. “You find yourself wondering, ‘why does my research matter?’ But everyone there is putting something new into the scientific community, and that’s important to see. There’s always more to learn and discover, and it was great to see that there are so many people out there, like us, who are interested in research.”

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