April 26, 2018

After icy conditions cancelled the February 7 Graduate Research Innovation Exchange (GRIE), this typically two-part event was compressed into one day with more than 200 presenters.

Rory Flinn, director of graduate student professional development, says that at WPI, the work of grad students is often less visible than the undergraduates’ well known IQPs and MQPs.

“This is the opportunity for our graduate students to feel more connected to the community,” he says. “Graduate students often present at conferences, but their research may not be known to peers and faculty members. This lets them be recognized.”

Grad students might be experts in carrying out their research, but GRIE offers them a new set of skills they'll need throughout a professional career. They need to reflect on why their research matters and why they are spending time on this particular topic, he says. “Anytime they have to put a poster and presentation together, they must think of the story they have to tell about the research. They can’t get just into the weeds of the research or they will lose the attention of interested parties.”

As Flinn points out, GRIE is a professional development opportunity as grad students prepare for life after graduation. They will always need to be able to present and communicate their work and then answer questions about it. They can do that only by becoming comfortable with public speaking. And at GRIE, they do that as they are being judged by various faculty members and industry professionals.

“Traditionally, many grad students don’t receive that kind of training,” says Flinn. “There’s lots of preparation, but it’s a great celebration of graduate student training and research and community at WPI. A full slate of professional development programming was organized this past year at WPI for graduate students to address these gaps.”


“You never know if people are getting excited by your work,” says physics PhD candidate Anusuya Pal. “With the poster and presentation, you can see their faces while you are explaining, and you feel that excitement more. They are asking the questions you want them to ask, and you feel like you are doing a good job.”


“This idea came to me in a dream," says Wei Dai, who hopes his PhD research in data science will lead to life-saving public security improvements in places like stadiums or churches. “It’s device-free, so I’m not tracking people on their cell phones—and it’s affordable.”


Preparations for GRIE helped Interactive Media and Game Development MS student Keenan Gray fine-tune his thesis work. “This is the middle ground between my presentation and my thesis paper,” he says. “I get to organize my thoughts and get feedback from people who aren’t my advisors. I can talk about what I did and the potential applications. The practice is invaluable.”


For some students, GRIE acts as a milestone in their academic career. “This helps people understand a bit better what can happen with the work,” says Jim Vicens, who is earning his MS in chemical engineering. “I am not continuing for a PhD, so for a student like me this is the maximum research I can provide. It’s not the end of the road or the beginning—it’s a good viewpoint for what I have accomplished and what is coming next.”


In his first time presenting at GRIE, MS student Milad Farzad says he enjoys explaining the positive results of his mechnical engineering research to those who might not be familiar with the immediate benefits of a faster materials drying process. “This is high impact because it’s saving energy,” he says.


A culmination of work at year’s end also offers a chance to mull over accomplishments.“Today is good practice to conceptualize the bigger picture,” says learning sciences & technology MS scholar Avery Harrison. “It’s in a pressure-free environment. It’s nice to reflect on the big picture and see what my goals are. By talking about this, I can say, ‘This is the big question I want to answer.’”


“It is nice to have others in the department see the side projects I do,” says biomedical engineering PhD candidate Kimberly Ornell. “Some of the work I do gets passed on to others who do other parts. The nice thing about a showcase is that this is not stressful.”


Explaining work succinctly is a skill that takes practice. “While you are working you can get so into your research,” says Yasmina Benkhoui, a PhD student in civil engineering. “This helps you take a step back and figure out how to summarize and present your work to people who don’t have your same background.”


“GRIE is an opportunity for me to make other people understand my work,” says Lucia Carichino, a postdoctoral fellow in mathematical sciences. “I know for this I need to find a way to communicate my message. It’s an important opportunity.” 


A curious group by nature, students also enjoy seeing each other’s work during the GRIE presentations. “Here we can see what’s happening in the field and not just in our lab,” says Adhavan Jayabalan, an MS student in robotics engineering who was presenting at GRIE for the first time. “You get lots of experience for pursuing a PhD or even for a job. The skills will help you either way.”