First prize (and 500 euros!) for undergrad researcher Saakshi Thukral

“Attending the World Congress on Undergraduate Research … was the highlight of my college career.” – Saakshi Thukral

500px UG Researcher tours EuropeSaakshi Thukral went to Europe this spring and brought home a 500 euro first prize — worth about $560 in United States money.

It was the first trip across the pond for the University of Alabama at Birmingham rising junior neuroscience major, and she made the most of it. Besides presenting her research at the World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Oldenburg, Germany, Thukral took time — before and after the conference — for her first visits to the capitals of Germany and France, as well as the great city of Amsterdam.

Here, Thukral shares her conference experience and travels to three major European cities:

IMG 6953City of Light, Paris

“When ­­­I was packing my bag for Europe,” Saakshi Thukral said, “I didn’t know what to expect. Quite honestly, I didn’t even know what the weather would be like because it was my first time traveling to a European country. 

“After a long and stressful 22 hours of travel, my first stop was Paris, France. The moment I entered the city, I understood why Paris is the fashion capital of the world. The locals of the city walked leisurely, about whereas tourists rushed to their destinations; but each person was dressed their best. Over the three days I spent, I was able to enjoy coffee and crêpes in cafés, ride the Metro, visit many historical sites such as the Notre-Dame and Arc de Triomphe, and watch the Eiffel Tower light up at night. Roaming the streets of Paris and indulging in French culture was a dream come true, and I hope to do it again soon. 

Gouda cheese, Amsterdam

“From Paris, I took a four-hour train to Amsterdam, where I stayed in a hostel that was a former zoological university that still held classes in their library and lecture hall during the weekdays. The hostel itself was pretty cool as it was designed with creative artwork to appeal to the younger generation, but families with newborns and elderly couples stayed there as well. While in Amsterdam, I got to experience various types of Gouda cheese and relish a salted caramel stroopwafel. I enjoyed many views of the city through a guided canal cruise, tram rides and by foot; but it wasn’t till I aimlessly biked around the city and talked to shop owners and other bikers that I learned about Dutch culture and the daily life of a local. 

Water on Mars

“After two days in Amsterdam, it was finally time to head to the World Congress on Undergraduate Research, or WCUR, at the University of Oldenburg in Oldenburg, Germany. Right when I arrived at my hotel, I met another participant of the conference, and immediately, we began discussing our research. At that moment, I knew that the next three days would be exciting. The conference started with an opening ceremony and keynote speaker Lujendra Ojha Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, who contributed to the discovery of water on Mars. He not only explained his research but also gave excellent advice on how to excel in our fields of study and ended his presentation debating current issues that have a global impact with undergraduates in the audience.

IMG 7394copyThe WCUR Poster Session

“The Congress was filled with fascinating presentations and events. Oral and poster presentations ranged from the re-settlement of school-age refugee children to the vulnerability of stroke after a traumatic brain injury, and I even met students with the same research interest as me, drug addiction. We had meaningful conversations about the different strategies used and future directions if our results were to be tested on a human subject. Surprisingly, I had similar, yet more complex, conversations during the one-hour session I had to present my poster. I was approached with intriguing questions from conference members with no previous knowledge of addiction and my judge, Alex Muntz, Ph.D., an ophthalmology research fellow from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. My interactions with them made me realize the potential to learn from my project and excited me to continue my work when I return to UAB this fall.

Saakshi Thukral

Thukral is a rising UAB junior from Nashville, Tennessee, with a major in neuroscience and minors in chemistry and biology, all in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. She is also in the Fast Track Master of Public Health program, with a concentration in epidemiology, in the UAB School of Public Health. In Germany, she presented her research done in the lab of Jeremy Day, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology, UAB School of Medicine.

Brainstorming research at WCUR

“Besides the presentations, WCUR did a great job of keeping us fed and entertained. They constantly had snacks and drinks available for us, a live band, a photo booth, offered social excursions before, during and after the conference, and encouragedus to attend a thematic session, which was my favorite part. During this session, we were told to write three words on a sheet of paper that best described our research and then go around the room to form a group with members with similar topics. We each explained our work and brainstormed one big question that connected our respective area of science, followed by evaluating lab methods that would be most appropriate for our study. It was a thought-provoking activity and helped me explore my research beyond the lab.

Appreciating the value of researchIMG 7538 cropped

“Overall, WCUR was an eye-opening experience to the hard work being done around the world to advance a variety of disciplines that impact many populations. Pre-medical students in the United States — and especially those who attend a heavily research-oriented university like the University of Alabama at Birmingham — often think of research as an unspoken requirement for medical school. By the end of this conference, however, I not only had a greater appreciation for research and truly understood the value of it; but I also realized that it is a privilege and an honor to perform complex science early in my journey to becoming a physician. Attending WCUR and winning first place in my category, Create, was the highlight of my college career, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet and learn from an amazing group of talented and passionate undergraduate researchers. I am eager to see how everyone proceeds with their research and career goals in the future.

Berlin, crucible of the Cold War

“My last stop was Berlin, where I spent a day exploring Germany’s history by visiting sites such as the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. This one day in Berlin was exciting because of my dad. The Berlin Wall was built shortly before he was born, so listening to his stories about the Cold War’s impact and the progression of Germany to become a united country when the Wall fell was remarkable. Visiting locations from those tumultuous times was monumental for him, and I am glad I could be at his side. 

The World Congress on Undergraduate Research

The World Congress on Undergraduate Research attracts the world’s best undergraduate researchers in all disciplines to focus on the most significant challenges facing the global community. Students shared their research, discussed global issues, and created or strengthened international research partnerships. 

This year’s congress in Germany was the second World Congress held. The five UAB undergraduates invited to attend — Kenneth Davis, Allie Haynes, Jason Zhang, Kerri Tang and Saakshi Thukral — are all members of the UAB Honors College.


“Attending the World Congress on Undergraduate Research allowed me to venture to parts of Western Europe that I have always dreamed of, and it broadened my perspective on the world that we live in. I am thankful for the Jeremy Day Lab at UAB and its continuous effort to shape me into a good researcher, for my family who accompanied me on the trip and have always been my Number One supporters, and for UAB giving me a platform to grow on. I had an unforgettable time in Europe, and I will always cherish these memories.”“From going on a trip with no expectations, to coming back with a suitcase full of memories and an urge to return, I can easily say that my 10 days in Europe were some of the best so far. Every morning, I got to throw on a nice outfit and then spend the day exploring architectural accomplishments, conversing with locals and savoring authentic food, while also having the opportunity to present a project I am so passionate about at an international conference, and learn about research spanning a breadth of disciplines from students representing 35 countries.