Michelle Len, a junior majoring in computer science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has never ventured out of California or sat on an airplane her entire life. That is, until this morning, when she flew to Philadelphia for the Ivy Plus STEM Symposium.

The Ivy Plus STEM Symposium — co-sponsored by the eight Ivy League universities, Stanford University, New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago — is a three-day conference designed to encourage undergraduate students to pursue advanced training in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The welcome reception was held at Club Quarters Hotel Thursday evening.

Over dinner, Len recounted her previous semester in college, where she juggled two jobs to support her family, took hula dancing classes and underwent an intensive research program to develop a software that will be used in elementary schools to get students interested in programming.

The symposium was designed for students like Len to engage in critical conversations with faculty, administrative leaders, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students and other like-minded undergraduates about life, physical and quantitative sciences.

Len’s expenses were partially funded by Penn and the nationwide McNair Scholars Program, a scholarship designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.

This year, Penn has the honor of hosting some of the country’s most promising and talented undergraduates. There are over 100 student attendees this year from all over the country.

Kwadwo Owusu-Boaitey of the University of Maryland said the conference is a “great opportunity for undergraduates interested in STEM to present and be exposed to the works and research of the professionals in the industry.”

The highlight of the opening ceremony was keynote speaker Derrick Pitts. A senior scientist, chief astronomer and planetarium director at the Franklin Institute, he has written numerous astronomy articles and appears regularly on major television networks as a science content expert.

“He has this uncanny ability to communicate science in a fun and entertaining way,” College senior and McNair Scholar Daniel Ramos said when he introduced Pitts on stage. “Because scientists are not the best communicators, in essence, he is providing a very great service to society.”

Pitts covered a range of science-related topics, from the Mars rover and moonstones to meeting men from Apollo 15.

His passion shone through his speech. “I have the greatest job in the world,” he said, and as though he could not quite believe it himself, he repeated, “the greatest job in the world!”

He advised the audience to build important professional skills. “Communication skills are important no matter what discipline you’re in,” he said. “You need to be able to tell people what is it you do and you will be amazed at the things that happen when you’re able to do so.”

The evening ended with Joel Oppenheim, senior associate dean for biomedical sciences at New York University, who gave a brief networking workshop on making 30-second “elevator speeches.”

Over the course of the next two days, the students will tour Penn’s campus and its labs, network with program directors, admissions directors and prominent faculty members from Ivy League and other notable universities.

At the end of the evening, Len said the conference so far has been inspiring and has reinforced her desire to get a doctoral degree. She said, “It’s a privilege to take this step.”

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