“A Grand Tradition”: Discovery Day’s Storied Past, Bright Future
Discovery Day, the College of Medicine’s annual day of research, was held on October 27, 2022, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, with more than 350 students and trainees sharing their research with faculty, alumni and peers. This year’s keynote speaker was Veronica A. Alvarez, PhD, acting chief of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Section on Neuronal Structure, and lab chief of NIAAA’s Laboratory on Neurobiology of Compulsive Behaviors. View the poster and platform award recipients.
Discovery Day 2022 culminated with a dinner and awards ceremony, a tradition that hasn’t taken place since the COVID-19 pandemic. The excitement in the air and the spirited awards dinner were a reminder of and testament to the long and illustrious history of the celebration of research at our institution and its legacy schools.
For many years, Hahnemann University held Grad School Day, an opportunity for biomedical graduate students to share their research with their peers. Elizabeth Blankenhorn, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, has fond memories of the event’s earlier days, which included a day of graduate student research presentations at Hahnemann University followed by an elegant evening celebration at the Franklin Institute. She describes Grad School Day as “a grand tradition.”
Alumna Sharon Stranford, PhD microbiology and immunology ’92, now the faculty co-director for the Institute for Inclusive Excellence and a professor of biology at Pomona College, was mentored by Blankenhorn. Stranford also remembers Grad School Day fondly. She recalls the event being an important opportunity for graduate students to practice professional presentation of their research findings to other scientists within and outside their departments.
“That was a valuable experience for us, especially those of us who were graduating and starting our professional lives.” She adds that the celebration that followed was something many students, especially those graduating, looked forward to for months. “Grad School Day in the year that we graduated was extra special. We were finally the most senior students, and mentors to more junior grad students, presenting the culmination of years of work.” She describes vivid memories of the celebration afterward: “We had a lovely, catered meal, with lots of dancing and celebration in the main hall that went well into the night. It was very special to have the place all to ourselves.” Stranford specifically remembers exploring the Giant Heart exhibit and being part of a photo of a group of students sitting on the Ben Franklin statue, which she describes as “a rite of passage.”
In 1993, Hahnemann and Medical College of Pennsylvania merged to become MCP-Hahnemann University (MPCHU). In 1998, when the parent organization of MCPHU – Allegheny Health System – declared bankruptcy, the future of what was by then known as MCPHU Research Day was very uncertain. Drexel University, which assumed leadership of the school after the bankruptcy, had its own Research Day, which was also held each spring. MCPHU leadership ultimately voted to stop funding the event.
A group of concerned faculty and students had different plans, though. They felt that it was important to maintain this piece of the school’s history, despite the lack of funding. Then-MD/PhD student John Po (MD ’03, PhD ’02) was president of the Student Government Association at the time, and he and supportive faculty members, including Blankenhorn and Richard Rest, PhD, emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology, decided to hold their own event. In a 2011 Alumni Magazine article, Po said the event was “important as a legacy for MCP-Hahnemann.”
While the determination and drive were bountiful, many logistical barriers stood in the way, including finding a location, paying for food and supplies, and attracting presenters. Eventually, the event was held in the fall of 1999, and included about 25 posters, a few platform presentations and a keynote address. Considered a success, the event was renamed Discovery Day shortly thereafter.
In addition to support from key faculty and leaders, the event received logistical assistance from faculty, including Kirsten Larson, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, who volunteered to organize the student poster competition for the 1999 event. She has continued to recruit and coordinate volunteer judges ever since. She says, “It is exciting that over 135 faculty members, alums and guests each year help with judging poster and platform presentations. These assignments foster collegiality and ensure poster presenters meet and share their work with scientists from their departments and other programs, departments, schools and institutions.”
Discovery Day flourished in the following years under the guidance of Barry Waterhouse, PhD, who served as vice dean of biomedical graduate and postgraduate studies from 2006 to 2014 and vice dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies from 2014 to 2015, and the support of L.M. Bill Stevenson, PhD, who was a powerful force for the advancement of research at Drexel during his time as vice provost for research and graduate policy. Their contributions were recognized through the creation of the Barry Waterhouse Platform Award and the Bill Stephenson Keynote Address.
Rest, who was dean of biomedical graduate studies at the time, expressed pride at the event over the years in the 2011 article. “I tout Discovery Day to a lot of my colleagues outside of Drexel. There are very few places that spend the money and the effort to have a research day like this,” he said.
Discovery Day has grown greatly in size and reach. Since 2009, the event has averaged 350 to 400 posters, a fifteen-fold increase from the first event. In 2016, under the guidance of Elizabeth Van Bockstaele, PhD, founding dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies, the event was moved to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to provide much-needed space and the logistical experience of professional conference attendance for all who participate.
The College of Medicine remains committed to recognizing and supporting scholarly research. Plans for Discovery Day 2023 are underway, and the event is slated for the fall at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
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