Students win big at SACNAS

Nine Skyline College biology students returned from a recent national science conference held Oct. 22 and 23 in Austin, Texas, with valuable knowledge and experience. Two of the students also brought back to Skyline a significant award.

At the annual conference put on by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Philina Mui and Elena Robles won the award for having the best undergraduate biology presentation. Presented in a ceremony on the final night of the conference, the honor took the two biology majors quite by surprise.

“We didn’t believe it, because we weren’t expecting anything from this, or not expecting to win,” said Mui. “So, when they called Elena’s name, I thought, ‘Wait, did they just call our names?'”

Michael Williamson, dean of Skyline’s science-mathematics-technologies division, commended both the students and the faculty involved in the award-winning research.

“It is really impressive for these two girls to win,” he said. “It really speaks to how committed the faculty is to take their independent time to work with students. Once students start doing research, they get excited about science.”

Mui’s and Robles’ research presentation was one of over 500 posters being exhibited at SACNAS by undergraduate students from around the country, including from schools like Harvard, Boston College and several University of California campuses. Various judges evaluated the students’ work, asking them questions about anything related to their projects. Besides admitting to feeling nervous, Mui and Robles felt they had studied enough and were confident about the judges’ evaluations.

“They only gave us positive feedback,” said Robles. “There wasn’t anything negative.”

Skyline was the only community college represented at the 2002 and 2003 conferences, and, according to Dr. Christine Case, who traveled with the students to Texas, only one other community college was in attendance this year.

“I thought the conference was terrific,” said Case, the students’ biology instructor. “Skyline…has made a commitment to quality science education and the advancement of science: not just teaching principles, but to actually doing the science.”

Case pointed out that science conferences are “all about sharing information” in order to get feedback and move forward in the field of science. All the Skyline students in attendance felt they gained something from being there.

“It was a lot of fun,” said biotechnology student Kimberly Richardson-Kubitsky, who presented research about the possibility of microbes surviving on Mars. “We worked so hard for months and months. It took about nine months to put everything together. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.”

According to Case, the students were “truly excited about it. They made reference to some things they’d never dreamed of, both in terms of career and graduate school possibilities…. In Califiornia, sometimes by being locked in by mountains and the ocean, we don’t realize that there’s a lot more out there.”

For their original research presentation, “Distribution of Coliforms in a Coastal Stream,” Mui and Robles drew some inspiration from that close proximity to the ocean. One day at Pacifica State Beach, they observed some children playing in some polluted water near the mouth of San Pedro Creek. They decided to investigate the concentration of coliforms in the water of the creek. Coliforms are bacteria found in sewage.

The two winning women said they would like to submit their findings to the city of Pacifica, but they would have to refine their research in order to pinpoint the source of the pollution. They said that would take a lot more time and effort. According to Mui, they had already used over 700 test tubes.

“The whole process is very tedious,” she said. “It’s fun, but it’s very tiring.”

For now, though, they are pleased that their research will be published in a journal by SACNAS that includes presentations from the conference.

“Everyone was a winner there,” said Mui. “We don’t consider ourselves the only two that won. The greatest reward is not that we won, not materialistically, not the money, not the certificate, but what we gained from the research. The knowledge we gained is what is valuable. That is the greatest reward.”