Not many things have the staying power to last eleven years. Tetanus boosters don’t even last that long. When I think about it, I’m not even sure how many marriages I know of that have lasted that long. This year, however, was the 11th year in a row that U of I’s Coordinated Science Lab (CSL) has presented its Student Conference.

The conference has many things in common with other student conferences at U of I, mainly that (appropriately for the Land of Lincoln) it is Of the Students, By the Students, and For the Students. This year, the General Co-Chairs of the conference were Khaled Alshehri and Sara Bahramianparchekoohi. I met with Sara and Khaled after the closing dinner of the event, late at night on February 19th. They looked tired, but surprisingly energetic. It was clear they were proud of the work they had done, and from what I discovered, they and the rest of the committee have every reason to be proud of what they’ve accomplished.

The conference is a three-day affair, and this year it began on the 17th of February with an opening plenary by Dr. Andy Feng, a VP of Architecture at Yahoo!, about large-scale machine learning and culminated on the 19th with a celebratory dinner and the announcement of award winners. In between were a series of high-brow keynotes, lectures, and discussions seasoned with a research poster exhibition, a graduate student job fair, a panel discussion with various industry and scholastic professionals, and, of course, food. The common theme in the conference is collaboration, namely collaboration and information sharing between different fields. Making the conference unique is the fact that it is completely free and open to all college students everywhere. In addition to local students, there were registered attendees from Michigan, Ohio, and Purdue, to name a few of the schools represented. If you thirst for knowledge and you have a .edu email address, you are welcome to register and attend.

“The conference is an opportunity for students to gain experience in leadership and management,” Alshehri told me. “It is also an opportunity for students to showcase their research and get experience doing that.” These are all skills that are absolutely necessary both in and out of academia, yet aren’t always easy to acquire or hone.

In addition to talks given by leading professionals in various fields — from bipedal robots to data centers and energy — there were many presentations from graduate students about their work, ranging from addressing electricity theft to new applications of game theory.

“The school is such a big place, and people are so often so concerned with their own work, that it’s easy to not see some of the interesting and ground-breaking research that is happening around them,” Bahramianparchekoohi said. “With this conference, the hope has always been to encourage collaboration, and maybe to help people exchange information, to open up conversation between different groups, people of different backgrounds.”

It seems that the conference is successful in opening avenues of conversation, too. In addition to U of I grad students from a number of different departments that presented their work were four Invited Students from other universities who also had their time at the podium. One of them, Federico Parietti, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, had only good things to say about the experience.

“I feel very thankful for having been invited,” he said. “The talks were all very informative, very interesting.” In particular, he said he appreciated the close and intimate nature of the conference. “Most conferences you go to, the lectures have maybe a thousand people in them. It’s impossible to get to the front and speak with the presenter in person. Here, there were maybe 100 people, maybe a little more. I was able to have meaningful interactions with the presenters and the attendees, and consistently received qualified feedback about my own research. That’s important to me because I’m trying to graduate right now, and it’s been really very helpful.”

Last year, the 8-person committee organizing the Student Conference contacted a variety of schools and encouraged graduate students therein to submit an application, including an abstract for their proposed presentation, to be considered to be invited as a speaker. The committee members then whittled down the pile of applications to just four, paid for the accepted students’ travel, room, and board, and, according to Federico, were generally accommodating and outstanding hosts.

The conference is constantly evolving, having come a long way from the small event put together by Sujay Sanghavi and Bruce Hajek (encouraged and assisted by Professor Bruce Hajek) in 2006.* I asked whether the “100 attendees” figure was an accurate estimate based on their records of attendance. I was wondering because when I attended the opening plenary, the room was packed and seemed to hold more than 100 people. I was assured that the average attendance was consistently between 100 and 150 or so, though the opening talk threatened the fire code with about 170 attendees. Despite the relatively moderate number of attendees per talk, more than 400 students registered for the conference this year. I asked how that number compared to last year’s registration.

“About triple,” Alshehri said with a smile. “We have grown quite a lot since last year.” And for good reason — this year was a year of firsts: the first graduate student career fair, the first year that awards were presented, the first year they had a (student-designed) logo, and (as I am told) the first year that a local publication has taken time out of reporting which artisanal soy protein shake goes best with a beard and flannel to write about what these students have successfully undertaken.

Bahramianparchekoohi and Alshehri assure me that the conference really is 100% student-run. Any U of I student is welcome to contact them if they’re interested in helping to organize the conference. Be warned, though: it is not a paid position. “We could not even order a pizza for our meetings with the funds,” Sara said, chuckling a little. “All of the money we had for the conference went directly back into the conference. None of it was spent on the committee or the co-chairs personally.”

The career fair, which featured a number of local and national companies, was exclusively for graduate students. The logic is that in the area, and particularly at U of I, there are several job fairs each year which cater to undergraduates, but there isn’t anything that is geared to graduate students. Perhaps some readers can relate to this scenario (I sure can): you go to a career fair and speak to someone and the whole thing sounds great until you find out that they’re looking for an unpaid intern or a two-month summer contractor. You walk away, dejected and defeated. However, the career fair here at the CSL Student Conference was specifically targeted at graduate students and attempted to attract companies that were seeking long-term employees — employees ready and willing to begin a career, not those just looking for a summer job.

Bahramianparchekoohi and Alshehri tell me that every year is a year of firsts for the conference. The committees organizing it constantly try to improve it, to make it bigger and better. For next year, they are already planning on expanding the job fair, perhaps increasing the number of speakers or Invited Students, and becoming more financially independent while continuing to keep the conference completely free for all attendees.

Currently, the funding for the event comes from a small handful of sources, mostly from departments around U of I. The committee drafts proposals (yet another opportunity to polish a useful skill) to other departments explaining what they would do with funding and how that would benefit the students and faculty of those departments. So far, (obviously, perhaps) the conference committees have been successful in receiving enough funding to expand and grow. This year, another first for the conference was receiving some corporate funding.

However, the committee isn’t seeking to break all ties from U of I. On the contrary, they enjoy and greatly appreciate the support and encouragement they receive from faculty and staff both within CSL and beyond. But they understand that money is finite, and in particular, that departments at all schools must be careful with their funding lest it disappear. (I could make a snide comment here about the Illinois budget crisis, but you’re probably already thinking it.) The organizers of the Student Conference also understand that if they can become self-sufficient, they may be able to expand and improve the conference at a faster rate.

Even after the full year of planning, long nights of meetings, and three days of execution, the work of the committee is still not over. They are drafting questionnaires to send to the speakers and the companies which were present at the career fair in the hope of receiving feedback to improve the event for next year. In true scientific spirit, the organizing committee collects data about the conference every year and stores it for future reference. No piece of information is too insignificant to be considered useful in sculpting the following year’s conference.

If you’d like to help with the CSL Student Conference or become a sponsor of the event, feel free to contact CSL Staff and they’ll point you in the right direction. If you’re just interested in attending, keep an eye on the Student Conference page for updates and information about when the 2017 conference will be open for registration.

Top photo from CSLSC's Twitter.

* Editor's Note: There was initially a slight mistake with Prof. Hajek that was brought to our attention, which has been updated and reflected in the article.