Story: Lisa Sollie

The University of West Alabama will host its 12th annual University Research Symposium (URS) Monday, March 4 (virtually) and in-person Tuesday, March 5. Led by the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, the event showcases 106 research presentations by undergraduate, graduate and professional researchers from UWA and 20 other universities across seven countries. The viewing session and awards banquet slated for March 5 are open to the public. For virtual access, click the hyperlinks in the URS program (pg. 11).

“The intense immersion of undergraduate students in research helps them develop their scholarly pursuits,” said Dr. Mustafa Morsy, chair of the symposium, professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. “Our faculty,” he added, “is dedicated to helping interested students identify and approach research areas, and refine their interests into focused project topics.”

One undergraduate research project featured at this year’s symposium is “Increasing Crop Production with Fungal Endophytes” by UWA students Layla Moberg and Bryson Rhodes alongside Mustafa Morsy. The project looks at developing environmentally friendly and sustainable agricultural systems that do not use pesticides, insecticides, and other chemicals that negatively affect the ecosystem. The lab identified many potentially beneficial symbiotic fungal endophytes from healthy wild plants growing under stressful environmental conditions. Their research, according to Moberg, is a “stepping stone for a new age environmentally friendly agriculture to feed our world’s growing population.” Moberg’s goal for research was finding a topic that meant a lot to her personally, and “this research did exactly that, and it’s also helped me grow academically, professionally and personally.”

At the URS, students will present research in several categories with poster visuals and oral presentations judged by a panel of professionals. The undergraduate poster session runs from 9:00 until 11:30 am at Brock Y-Hall, while the graduate oral presentations will be given from 1:00 to 3:00 pm at Bell Conference Center. Concurrent with the symposium is a graduate schools and career expo that connects students with potential graduate schools and employers from the region. Like all other URS events, the expo is open to all UWA students and features 20 exhibitors. 

Undergraduate research posters will be assessed and the best three will be honored with the Dean, Provost, and President’s Awards. Georgia-Pacific will also offer three awards to the best oral presentations by graduate students. An evening banquet and awards ceremony will begin at 5:30 at Bell Conference Center and will feature guest speaker Dr. Melanie McReynolds.

McReynolds is a professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna H. Gray Faculty Fellow at Pennsylvania State University, where her research focuses on the intersection of metabolic decline and aging. She holds a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and physics from Alcorn State University and participated in the NIH-funded Alcorn State to Penn State Bridges to the Doctorate program where she obtained her master of science degree in biological sciences and completed her doctorate in biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University. McReynolds was recognized as a Rising Star on the Cell Press list of Top 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America during her postdoctoral tenure at Princeton University and aims to inspire the next generation of scientists to trust that everything will work together. She is currently establishing an independent research group where her lab will shed light on metabolic aging and disease.

The Symposium is made possible in part by support from Georgia-Pacific, Alabama Power Company, BlueCross BlueShield of Alabama, UWA College of Natural Science and Mathematics, UWA Biology Opportunities and Scholarships for Success (BOSS II), Sumter County Farmers Federation, UWA Black Belt STEM Education Institute, and UWA’s Cahaba Biodiversity Center.

This year’s symposium was co-organized with the University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah (USMBA), Fez, Morocco, providing a unique opportunity for students from both universities to connect and exchange scholarly and cultural knowledge. We welcome Dr. El Mestafa El Hadrami, USMBA vice president of research, and his team to UWA’s campus during the URS activities.