OGDEN -- J.D. Nsingoi perused student projects in the Weber State University Kimball Arts Center gallery.
"Very interesting, I think," said Nsingoi, as he examined denim-covered mannequins covered with words, the creation of WSU student Jamie Reeve.
"There is so much to see here in three days," said Nsingoi, a native of Angola and a student at the University of Texas.
Nearby, other undergraduates gathered around another student art project, which seemed to be a chemically preserved heart, bottled and sandwiched between two upright sections of a tree trunk.
Outside, a small group of students stopped to snap a cellphone photo of themselves with a mountainous background.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," one joked, causing her friends to groan.
A swarm of about 3,100 visiting undergraduate students and faculty members, from 49 states and seven countries, arrived on campus Thursday for the 26th annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research, held at Weber State for the first time. NCUR continues through Saturday.
It's the largest convention Ogden has ever hosted, according to the Ogden/Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau, and is expected to bring more than $2.6 million to the Northern Utah area.
John Cavitt, director of WSU's Office of Undergraduate Research, is the man in charge of logistics.
"Sorry about the shuttle buses this morning," he told hundreds of students who filled the seats of the Browning Center's Austad Auditorium. The crowed responded with giggles.
"One of the shuttle bus' brakes caught on fire," he explained, as good-natured laughter erupted. "No students were on the bus when the fire started. We will have new buses tomorrow."
WSU President F. Ann Millner welcomed students, telling them their research could lead to innovations in the future, and she was excited to see the world their research would help create.
The crowd went silent as keynote speaker Mario Capecchi approached the podium. Capecchi, 74 and on the faculty at University of Utah, shared a 2007 Nobel Prize with two colleagues from other universities. The three scientists developed a method of injecting genes into pre-fertilized mouse eggs, to breed mice with genetic problems similar to those the team wanted to study in humans.
Ninety-nine percent of genes present in mice also are present in humans, Capecchi told his listeners. Identifying the gene that caused specific health problems in mice allowed the team to identify the gene that caused the same problems in humans, he explained.
The students, and other groups of visiting undergrads watching live feeds at additional sites, listened to Capecchi's descriptions of his work, how he built on the research of others and hoped future generations would build on his research.
But it was when Capecchi moved from his scientific story to his personal history that he drew his listeners' full focus.
Capecchi was raised in Italy by a single mother who was imprisoned by the Nazis when he was 3. Knowing her political activism might lead to an arrest, his mother had sold her belongings and given the funds to a farm family that agreed to care for young Capecchi if she were taken to a death camp.
The family cared for Capecchi for about a year, until funds ran out. The future Nobel Prize winner lived on the streets from ages 4 to 9, when his mother, who had survived, tracked him down in a hospital where he was being treated for malnutrition and typhoid.
Three days later, mother and son moved to America to live with her scientist brother in a Pennsylvania commune.
"It was quite a culture shock, going from the streets to a commune where I effectively had 64 'parents,' " Capecchi recalled, a twinkle in his eye.
Capecchi attended Anioch College, then M.I.T., and transferred to Harvard to study DNA. Harvard hired him as a faculty member, but in 1973, he was lured away by the University of Utah.
"The people at Harvard were not working together, so it was not fun," Capecchi said. "If it's not fun, there are other fields where you can earn more money."
U of U has been lots of fun, he said.
"You're going to be here a long time," Capecchi told students, who would reward him with a fervent standing ovation. "Do something you enjoy. Go after your passion."