Graduate Student Symposium Expands, Features Keynote by Noted Alumnus

Event draws record number of entries; Forbes '30 Under 30' honoree Sly Spencer Lee shares secrets of success

UM alumnus Sly Spencer Lee shares his secrets for success during his keynote speech for the Graduate Student Council’s Research and Creative Achievement Symposium. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi‘s Graduate Student Council held its 12th Annual Research and Creative Achievement Symposium, showcasing the research and creative work of students from all disciplines across graduate and professional schools, on March 8.

This year’s event also featured a keynote address by UM alumnus Sly Spencer Lee, a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree. He shared his story of growing up in Oxford as the child of parents who immigrated from Singapore, and finding success first as a scientist, then as an entrepreneur.

Spencer Lee earned two degrees at the university, a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 2010 and a master’s degree in environmental toxicology in 2012. He attributes his success to perseverance, an undying curiosity and the lessons he learned at Ole Miss.

“I want to share a story about a few habits, a few foundations that have served me really well and what I think can serve you well as you seek to build whatever you want: your company, your image, your career, your movement or even your life,” Spencer Lee said. “Those three habits I’ve found to be very useful are: curiosity; starting with what you can do before asking someone else to change; and persistence.”

Spencer Lee co-founded Emerge, which invented hardware and software devices that let users feel virtual objects in augmented reality without needing to wear special equipment or use any controllers. Emerge creates precise force fields mid-air, allowing users to feel shapes, volumes and even textures.

The loss of hugs and touch during the pandemic makes the invention even more meaningful, he said. The technology allows people to reach out virtually and hold hands, high-five or touch their friends and loved ones. 

To watch a video of Spencer Lee’s keynote address, click here.

Spencer Lee, a former winner of the UM symposium’s poster contest, was introduced by Deborah Gochfeld, principal scientist in the National Center for Natural Products Research and research professor of environmental toxicology. He worked in her lab as an undergraduate and accompanied her and UM professor Marc Slattery on field studies, where they dove as part of a team doing underwater drug discovery research.

A graduate student explains some of his work at the Research and Creative Achievement Symposium, hosted by the Graduate Student Council. Photo by Bill Dabney

In its 12th year, the symposium drew a record number of entries from graduate and professional students. 

The event was changed this year from including just “research” to “research and creative achievement” to more fully highlight graduate and professional student work from a broader range of disciplines across campus, said Elizabeth Tettleton Mason, director of external affairs for the Graduate Student Council.

“We felt there were many disciplines across the university that were not fully being exemplified for their nontraditional research formats, and so we wanted to expand that this year,” said Tettleton Mason, an MBA candidate who works as an executive assistant in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

This year’s symposium also benefited from partnerships with departments across campus, including the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement. This led to the creation of diversity, equity and inclusion awards in each category and increased the numbers of students who could be recognized.

The changes produced a larger, better event this year, Tettleton Mason said.

“We had people who are in physics, creative writing, journalism students, a full gamut, who were great representatives of their disciplines.”

The following students were recognized at the symposium for their presentations:

Podium Presentation

Group A

  • First – Alaa Qrareya, pharmaceutical sciences
  • Second – Matthew Saucier, chemistry
  • Third – Ryo Kataoka, HESRM
  • DEI best presentation award – Maliah Wilkinson, communication sciences and disorders

Group B

  • First – Vickie Wong, HESRM
  • Second – Liya Abera, engineering
  • Third – Salahuddin Mohammad, pharmaceutical sciences
  • DEI best presentation award – Alonya Castillo, musicology

Pitch Presentation

  • First – Savannah Draud, biology
  • Second – Nate Juda, criminal justice
  • Third – Natasha Wood, experimental psychology
  • DEI best presentation award – Odinaka Eze, history

Poster Presentation

  • First – Amelia Craze, biomolecular sciences
  • Second – Samir Senapati, pharmaceutical sciences
  • Third – Mohammed Ahmed, pharmaceutical sciences 
  • DEI best presentation award – Bethany LaValley, secondary mathematics

Creative Achievement Presentation

  • First –: Noel Quiñones, creative writing
  • Second – Danielle Buckingham, Southern studies
  • Third – Dayna Drake, journalism
  • DEI best presentation award – Joshua Nguyen, English and creative writing

For more information about the Graduate Student Council, visit