MSMS students, alum participate in Harvard Student Research Conference


Courtesy of Maria Kaltchenko

Maria Kaltchenko, a 2019 MSMS graduate, is a part of the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association (HCURA) Executive Board. This year, many current MSMS students virtually participated in HCURA’s Student Leadership Conference.

Zach Medlin, Staff Writer

Last week, the Harvard College Undergraduate Research Association (HCURA) hosted its annual Student Research Conference. High school students from around the world came together to participate in two days of workshops and speaker events intended to promote interest among students in conducting research. The prestigious conference, which normally takes place on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., occurred over Zoom and Congregate on Oct. 3 and 4.

Maria Kaltchenko, a 2019 MSMS graduate and Harvard sophomore from Tupelo, Miss., is a Co-Director of Programming on the HCURA Executive Board. A passionate student and researcher, Kaltchenko joined HCURA at the beginning of her freshman year, immediately taking an interest in the outreach the club performed through various high school and undergraduate research conferences. 

“The mission of HCURA is to promote undergraduate research and interdisciplinary collaboration, which is something I’m really interested in,” Kaltchenko said.

Kaltchenko said she discovered her passion for research as a student at MSMS, where she conducted research with Bertha Mireles (c.o. 2020) on the composition of gut microbiomes, going on to compete at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Now, as a neuroscience major at Harvard, Kaltchenko is continuing her research on gut bacterial composition and the possible connections it has to autism.

Nicholas Djedjos, a current MSMS junior, attended the conference along with Vidhi Patel, Raeed Kabir, Hayden Anderson and Fiona Dawe. A student in the Intro to Research class, Djedjos found the conference very informative, particularly the sessions where he and his peers learned about research being conducted on the professional level.

“From ornithology to machine learning, professors and undergraduate students alike showcased their research in an inspirational and informative way,” Djedos said.

Another junior and avid research student, Hayden Anderson, also thought the conference presented the perfect opportunity to learn about research in the real world.

“Over time at my old school, I had developed a love for research, and when Dr. Gibson told me about this opportunity, I just had to take it. I felt as if it were something that I needed to do,” he said.

As one of three Co-Directors of Programming, it is Kaltchenko’s job to plan for and coordinate HCURA’s major conference events. When asked about how she manages to put together such big events, she said she starts early and spreads it out. 

“In the summer, that’s when we really got started planning for HSRC, so once the school year starts, we just have to handle registration and applications,” Kaltchenko said.

 While she and her team did not need to consider such factors as providing lodging and food for students and speakers this year, they did have to account for new, 2020-specific issues like Zoom fatigue and time zone constraints. 

“It was all very logistically challenging, but now, in planning for NCRC (another HCURA conference), we know what things we can improve on,” Kaltchenko said.

Djedjos believes the conference went well in spite of quarantine restrictions. From “‘speed dating’” social breakout sessions to the intense Innovation Challenge in which he and three other students created a presentation on modern medical ethics and technique, Djedjos enjoyed everything the conference had to offer.

Kaltchenko said one of her favorite things about being involved in the HCURA programming is making connections with people from all over the world, but particularly those from Mississippi. 

“At Harvard, the South is very underrepresented,” she said, comparing finding someone from Mississippi to “spotting a unicorn.” 

This year, she was delightfully surprised to find several other MSMS students attending the conference, and she spent time with them during an online social event. 

“It was very rewarding to see some of my own,” she said. “I resonate very strongly with MSMS, and we need more people from MSMS doing stuff like this.”