Annual conference showcases UMBC's focus on undergraduate research

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People attend the sixteenth Annual Undergraduate Research & Creative Achievement Day at UMBC.

Macy Bokhari felt anonymous at the University of Maryland, College Park, and disconnected from the professors to whom she looked for inspiration.

So before her first semester was up, she adjusted her sights to another state university, up the interstate in Catonsville.

On Wednesday, Bokhari, now a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, held court in flowing robes of red silk, the formal garb of her native Saudi Arabia. She spoke to a stream of fellow students about her research on the implications of the Arab Spring protests for women's rights in the Middle East.

Bokhari was one of about 230 students presenting research projects at UMBC's 16th annual Undergraduate Research & Creative Achievement Day. It's like a middle-school science fair, only for college-age people of intimidating drive and intellect.

For Bokhari, the day culminated an educational experience that has lived up to her wildest dreams, one in which professors pushed her to the next idea or research opportunity.

"I couldn't have been happier since I arrived here," she said of UMBC. "I would never have known to do this research without my mentor."

A focus on undergraduate research has been one of the pillars of UMBC's ascent under President Freeman A. Hrabowski III. U.S. News & World Report regularly places the university on a list of 10 research institutions that excel at undergraduate teaching. And students are pushed to consider serious research from the moment they arrive as freshmen.

The university is one of the few to publish a journal exclusively devoted to undergraduate research, and every year, UMBC awards $1,500 research grants to about 50 undergraduates. The research and creative achievement day, held every April, is a highlight for hundreds of students like Bokhari, who have worked on projects for a year or more.

About 2,000 people show up every year to watch these undergraduates present their work in every discipline, from chemical engineering to global economics to dance.

"It's one of my favorite days on campus," said Kerry Kidwell-Slak, who works at the university's Shriver Center. "There's so much energy."

Hrabowski likes to say that the essence of education is asking good questions. "Undergraduate research focuses on just that," he said Wednesday. "Good thinking."

The president also could not resist a lighter nod to his recent recognition by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people. The night before, Hrabowski told students, he attended a gala with the other honorees in New York. "I'm probably the only person in here who wouldn't know that the young woman I was talking to last night was Rihanna," he said, drawing laughs with his reference to the popular singer, who joined him on the Time list.

Bokhari's display on women in the Middle East stood next to one titled "Modified Carbocyclic Nucleosides as Antiviral Agents." Nearby, visual arts major Hannah Skolnick presented a Web-based re-creation of a Renaissance art tour in Florence.

Skolnick set up at a table just vacated by seniors Dagmawi Tilahun and Kevin Tran, who were showing off low-cost incubators they had designed to aid families with premature babies in India and Ethiopia. The idea grew out of a project assigned last fall in professor Govind Rao's class on the use of sensors in chemical engineering. This summer, the students will travel with Rao to India to continue work on the incubators.

"It's really a combination of medicine, engineering and entrepreneurship," said Tran as he showed off one of the incubators, a wood-framed box with plastic windows and wires running in and out.

Tilahun, who grew up in Ethiopia, said he was "the type of guy who took a class in pretty much every department, because I didn't know what I wanted to do."

Like Bokhari, he found that UMBC set his mind to churning. "All you need to do is have some interest," he said, "and the professors here are willing to work with you to get you going in that field."

Tilahun said he found Rao's work a perfect fit, because he gets to tinker with devices while also thinking about medical needs around the world. "If you find yourself being excited by work, then you're doing something you love," he said. "Every time I do this research, it feels like kind of a break to me."

For Bokhari, the study of Middle Eastern women flowed in part from her experience growing up with a mother who left Saudi Arabia to pursue an academic career in social work. "We're the weirdos who live in America," the Columbia resident said, describing the outlook of her Saudi relatives.

In studying the Arab Spring, she was intrigued to find that Saudi women achieved many victories by asking for small, specific reforms, rather than calling for a total overthrow of government.

After graduate school, Bokhari hopes to parlay her fluency in Arabic, French and English into a career in global conflict resolution. No matter where she ends up, however, she said she'll remember UMBC as the place that stoked her intellectual curiosity.

"I tell all my neighbors to send their kids here," she said.