Honors Benefits: Caroline Burks Travel Award

In the post below, senior bioenvironmental sciences major Caroline Burks ’20 from Fort Worth, TX, describes the experience of her first professional conference, which was supported in part by an Honors Travel Fund award.

-by Caroline Burks

For most of my life, I didn’t have a clear idea of the direction I wanted to go in. I spent my time making good grades, joining the “right” extracurriculars, and overall building my portfolio so that I could get into a good college and ultimately get a good job. But once I got into college, I realized how much I didn’t know about what I actually enjoyed. That set me at a huge disadvantage, and really made me lose sight of who I was and what direction my life was going in. However, I found sight of it again when I started doing research. I have worked in several different fungal research labs, and the experience has really shown me that fungal research is something I would be more than content doing for the rest of my life. This idea was solidified when I went to the 30th Annual Fungal Genetics Conference last week.

As you can probably imagine, the field of fungal research isn’t a very large one. In total, there were about a thousand people attending this conference from all around the world. While meeting everyone at once seemed a little overwhelming at first, one thousand out of the billions of people in the world really isn’t much. However, I can say that being able to meet that many people who are exactly like me was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It really is a privilege to be able to nerd out about your research to people who are professionals in your field.

Another benefit to there being so few of us is there are far more chances to be exposed and introduced to the big-name researchers. If there was one thing I would do differently next time I attended this conference, I would come prepared with a list and description of famous researchers. I have to admit that one of the most embarrassing moments is to be standing in front of the man who wrote the protocol that is the basis for all of your experiments and to not have any clue who he is.

In terms of what we actually did at this conference, there was not a lot in terms of variety in activities. We attended plenary sessions in the morning, short oral presentations in the afternoon, and poster sessions in the evening. I got to watch my graduate student, Blake Commer, give an oral presentation at Asperfest (A workshop for Aspergillus researchers). She has been such an inspiration for me while I’ve been working in the lab, and seeing her absolutely kill her presentation was such a feeling of pride for me. I also saw my current graduate student, Joe Vasselli, give his first presentation at a conference. He did an excellent job, and to see the project that I’ve been helping with being presented alongside those of other great researchers made me incredibly proud of what I have accomplished so far.

Overall, attending this project was really illuminating for me professionally, in that I got to see what other people in my field were researching. I learned more than I could ever hope to learn about fungal genetics in any class or single lab experience. I was able to meet people who not only blew me away with their research, but were really friendly and inviting. One thing that I took away from this experience was that this field is full of very friendly people. Everyone was very excited that there was an undergrad attending, and they were all eager to show me their research and talk about what my future plans were. I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to meet so many people from my field.

A woman with short hair and glasses smiles at the camera while holding a clear plastic cup
Caroline Burks ‘20

I am graduating this May, and I am planning on attending the University of Georgia to receive a master’s degree in Plant Pathology in Fall. Naturally, that degree will involve working in a fungal research lab. I am beyond grateful to my professor and my graduate students for suggesting that I attend this conference, because it has given me so much insight to what this field is like, and what it takes to be successful. Thanks to this, I am excited for what lies ahead.

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