Journeying from Students to Scientists

A painting of a smiling young man wearing an Iowa State hoodie hangs inside the main doors of the Molecular Biology Building. It commemorates Rob Stupka who was a senior majoring in biochemistry when he was killed in a traffic accident in 2005.

Research was important to Stupka. He worked with transgenic plants to increase crop yields through improved pollination with the goal of feeding more people worldwide.

He had the idea of creating an undergraduate research symposium in the department, led the effort and served as chair of the first one. Stupka died before it took place, but it now bears his name.

These many years later, he continues to inspire those who study in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology (BBMB).

The 11th Stupka Undergraduate Research Symposium was held April 7 in the Molecular Biology Building with 190 registrants.

“The Stupka Symposium gives undergraduates in the department a chance to present their original research to others, in poster and lecture formats, thereby honing presentation and networking skills that are central to future success in a scientific career,” says Kristen Johansen, interim department chair.

“That the students themselves plan, organize and coordinate all aspects of this symposium gives them an opportunity to develop leadership and team management skills,” Johansen says. “Not to mention how the excitement and enthusiasm of these students is infectious. It brings the entire department, as well as others from Iowa State and beyond, together in a day of celebration of science.”

The annual event is organized by student leaders within the department and takes 18 months of planning. The organizing committee is comprised of freshmen through seniors, majoring in either agricultural biochemistry, biochemistry or biophysics.

For the 10-year anniversary Sarah Brinkman, who majors in agricultural biochemistry and agricultural business, was the CALS Council representative for the symposium and the Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology Club. The anniversary event expanded to two days to feature BBMB alumni, former Stupka scholars and committee members.

Alumni traveled from 16 different states to attend. An event of this scale required an increased budget and Sarah petitioned to get the club representation on the college student council to secure additional funding. Thanks to the generous support of many, the symposium continues to be free and open to all.

“It is a really good leadership opportunity, and it’s really cool the way the committee is a bunch of undergrads that come together and plan this big event respected in the biochemistry world,” Brinkman says.

“The symposium has many facets, but all focus on the journey from student to scientist,” says Desiree Gunning, co-adviser of the Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology Club. “The planning and presentation of this event is significant because it promotes scientific interaction and communication.”

Each year the committee selects and invites two world-class scientists as keynote speakers. One important criteria for their selection is that they actively mentor undergraduate students conducting research. To give students the opportunity to talk with these outstanding researchers, keynote lunch sessions are scheduled for students only.

The success of last years’ alumni participation resulted in having an alumni speaker selected each year.

“Having alumni from past symposia return in such strong numbers in 2015 served to strengthen our community but also to demonstrate the power of the Stupka experience for today’s students,” Gunning says.

Two poster sessions are held in the afternoon followed by the speaker program which features three student speakers. At the conclusion, the audience gathers in the Molecular Biology Building atrium for dinner and continued conversation.

Tyler Gilbreath, an agricultural biochemistry and microbiology major, is already planning for next year’s symposium. He has volunteered for two years and serves as co-chair of the speaker committee.

“Stupka is very prestigious within the department, university and beyond. Last year we were one of six regional clubs or student organizations recognized by the American Society of Biochemists and Molecular Biologists,” he says.

Ben Brown, a senior in agricultural biochemistry, has been treasurer of the symposium for two years. He also presented a poster of his research at the last symposium.

“I got involved with Stupka because it seemed like a great way to get to know people in my major and I wanted to experience some leadership in a new area. I’d never been a treasurer before. I figured, what better way to learn to balance a real budget than by doing it with the symposium.”

Rob Stupka’s family attends the symposium each year. His father Bob Stupka gave an emotional address at the 10th anniversary celebration, clearly moved by the attention his son’s efforts generated.

“I can’t tell you what a difference it has made in our lives the last 10 years,” Stupka said in his remarks. “We get a chance to see through these alumni when we hear what they’re doing, we get to see Rob going forward and I want you to know that we’re as proud of you as we would be of Rob. You’ve just done such a good job taking his ideals and moving them forward.”