BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — A group of Illinois Wesleyan University students traveled to the University of California-Riverside in April for the National Science to Policy Symposium, where two of the Titans were the only undergraduate students selected to present research.

Three IWU students standing in front of University of California-Riverside sign
Joelle McMillan '25, Victoria Ballesteros-Gonzales '25,  and Valeria Suarez '26 at the University of California-Riverside.

Victoria Ballesteros-Gonzales '25, Joelle McMillan '25 and Valeria Suarez '26 attended the conference hosted by the National Science Policy Network (NSPN), which was themed “Local to Global Innovation: Science and Technology Policy for a Prosperous Future.” Founded and led by early-career scientists, NSPN serves as an association of civically engaged individuals and local chapters committed to strengthening the role of science in society.

Projects submitted by McMillan and Suarez were accepted by the organization and they each presented personal research.

“Being the only undergraduate students presenting at the National Science Policy Symposium says a lot about IWU; how tight-knit our network is and also how prepared we are at such an early stage of our college careers,” said Suarez. 

“We were there with PhD students from prestigious universities like Johns Hopkins, Emory and even Columbia University. It didn’t take long to realize that as part of the IWU community, we belong in the same space as those students.” 

Suarez, who is studying political science and international studies, presented on environmental damages caused by unregulated and illegal mining in her home country of Venezuela, and how more sustainable mining alternatives could be used. 

“These practices have been aggravated by the country's political and humanitarian crises, leading to the massive exploitation of natural resources,” she said. “My goal was to create awareness on how negligence from local authorities toward open-pit mining has caused destruction and has attracted violent criminal groups, further jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of indigenous communities.”

Suarez, one of the youngest students in attendance, received the “best flash talk” award for her presentation. 

McMillan, a physics major, presented her work from a research internship during the summer of 2023 at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies in Tokyo, Japan. Her study compared utility-scale agrivoltaic systems (or using land for solar energy production and agriculture) and offshore wind farms in Japan, focusing on their environmental impact and energy production.

She said research has found offshore wind farms are less environmentally detrimental than solar collection fields, and that wind farms could meet at least 80% of Japan’s current energy demand.  

“My research supports Japan’s current shift toward offshore wind farms as a primary renewable energy source, allowing the nation to preserve scarce land resources while advancing its clean energy goals,” said McMillan. 

McMillan said she enjoyed attending educational panels regarding clean energy, where she learned about policies informed by science that are driving California’s push for more electric vehicles and other clean energy technology. The networking she experienced will come in handy as she works as an offshore development intern at one of the nation’s leading renewable energy developers this summer. 

Ballesteros-Gonzalez, who is studying political science and environmental studies, said it was inspiring to see her peers presenting along with other students with higher levels of education. 

“The conference gave me a deeper understanding of how our academic work can influence real-world issues, reinforcing my commitment to making a positive impact through science and policy,” she said.

IWU students standing with keynote speaker at national science to policy symposium
Joelle McMillan, Victoria Ballesteros-Gonzales and Valeria Suarez with keynote speaker Frances Colón, second from right, who is the Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.

The three attendees spoke highly of the keynote address given by Frances Colón, Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, who encouraged young women in attendance to make the most of their achievements and set examples for future generations. The students appreciated the opportunity to network with like-minded scholars from across the nation.

“The fact that we were in a very selective group of people interested in advocacy and the power of education to change our society personally made me feel empowered by how fruitful my time has been at IWU and I look forward to seeing what’s next,” said Suarez.

Beyond presentations, the Illinois Wesleyan students were able to interact with experts in environmental science, public health and economics, with all attendees working toward common goals in policy making.

“These interactions underscored the interconnectedness of various scientific disciplines and how collaborative efforts can lead to comprehensive solutions to complex problems. This insight has been particularly inspiring and is something we are eager to share and foster within our campus community,” said Ballesteros-Gonzalez. 

The Titans have established a registered student organization at IWU called the Science to Policy Network, which is affiliated with the national group. The RSO leaders hope to raise awareness across campus about the importance of science in policy-making.

“Our club empowers and educates members by offering resources from the National Science to Policy Network, facilitating professional development opportunities for students. Founded by students who identified a national disparity in the translation of science into policy, our primary goal is to address this gap at the local level,” said McMillan.

Next semester, the group plans to partner with similar RSOs to host events and bring speakers to campus. Any student is welcome to join, and can contact Joelle, Victoria or Valeria to learn more.