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SLAS2014 Student Poster Winners Launch into Science

One small step: entering a poster contest. One giant leap: exposure to thousands of new contacts to advance research and accelerate careers.


The SLAS Student Poster Competition is a launching pad for the work of the next generation of scientists. The $500-per-winner cash award recognizes the top three entries of innovative research submitted by students, graduate students, post-doctoral associates and junior faculty. In addition, winners are encouraged to submit their work for fast track publication consideration in one of two SLAS peer-reviewed publications, the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA). With so many opportunities open to them now, SLAS2014 award recipients enthusiastically encourage others to enter next year's competition.

"The Student Poster Competition is a great opportunity to show all the work that you have been doing as well as engage with prominent members of the SLAS community," says Garrett Mosley, a Ph.D. student researcher in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His entry, "Layer-by-Layer Chitosan-Alginate Coating of Polymeric Nanoparticles for Colon Specific Drug Delivery," outlines the potential of achieving site-specific drug delivery by applying a pH responsive enteric coating that is designed to regulate drug release for IBD and colon cancer treatments. "Winning the SLAS Student Poster Competition brought some extra attention to my project and allowed me to meet people, including potential collaborators," he says.

Kris Wilson, Ph.D., agrees. "I received excellent feedback both during the presentation and since coming home," she says. A two-time winner, Wilson's entry first was awarded at the European Laboratory Robotics Interest Group's (ELRIG) Drug Discovery 2013 conference, held in Manchester, UK, in collaboration with SLAS. Her poster earned her the SLAS Young Scientist Award there, which came with a trip to SLAS2014. "To then be shortlisted and win the poster prize at SLAS was a shock since I was very pleased just to attend as a delegate," says Wilson, a student at the University of Edinburgh. Her entry, "A Novel High Throughput Drug Screening Technique Targeting Human Kynurenine 3-Monooxygenase (KMO)," illustrates one of several novel techniques for targeting the human KMO enzyme developed during her Ph.D. studies.

Like Wilson, poster competition winner Timothy Ruckh, Ph.D., also earned registration and travel to SLAS2014. He came from Northeastern University (NEU) in Boston via the SLAS2014 Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program. Ruckh was among 46 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members who received Tony B. awards to present their scientific achievements at SLAS2014. The award provides each winner with conference registration, airfare (or personal auto/mileage reimbursement) and shared accommodations at an SLAS conference hotel. Based on availability, Tony B. awardees may also enroll in a short course for no additional cost. "The travel award was essential for me to attend the conference; without it I simply would not have been able to go. I'm a strong supporter of keeping that program going!" Ruckh states.

His winning entry, "Ultra-small and Ratiometric Nanosensors for Dynamic Potassium Imaging," reports on a new, modular design for photo-stable, ratiometric and ultra-small nanoparticles that is capable of quantitatively imaging potassium fluxes.

"Presenting my research at the conference exposed me to feedback from industry scientists and engineers that I wouldn't have otherwise received," explains Ruckh, a postdoctoral research associate at NEU who works in the lab of Heather Clark, Ph.D. "The experience of attending several year's worth of SLAS conferences and exhibitions has recalibrated how I view my own research, because on one hand, academic research should be about new ideas and possibilities. On the other hand, those new ideas are only useful if they can be disseminated and independently repeated."

Ruckh keeps the balance between new possibility and commercial application in mind as he works in the lab. "That's why I'm particularly excited about my work that won the poster competition," he explains. "One of the small but important changes I made to my research has substantially increased the yields of each nanosensor batch, and it also makes the fabrication a bit easier. The project is about 90 percent done, and having won the poster competition based on my progress thus far has made me really hungry to get that last bit of data to round out the story."

Passing up Business College

Ruckh was poised to go to business school when the lure of engineering and advice from an older cousin sealed his future in science. His cousin, a Ph.D. student in materials engineering, made a strong case for the abundant opportunities that scientists and engineers have to learn business, while far fewer situations exist for business people to learn science. "In fact, my father is an electrical engineer who worked his entire career in sales, so I saw how those opportunities arise," he continues. In the end, he decided to go to the University of Minnesota for his B.Sc. in mechanical engineering.

Ruckh made similar adjustments throughout his academic career. Once as he decided to work on projects that positively impact people's health and again as he decided to pursue graduate school and scientific experimentation.

"The more I thought about it, the more I liked the prospect of linking up large concepts and fine details. I also realized that I could make the jump into biomedical engineering in graduate school, which I did when I joined a computational biomechanics lab at Colorado State University," says Ruckh, who earned both his M.Sc. and Ph.D. there. While finishing his master's thesis, Ruckh developed a strong interest in becoming a bench scientist and switched into another lab at Colorado State that worked with polymer scaffolds for tissue regeneration. It was at this point that his advisor encouraged him to present his research as a poster at SLAS.

The competition wasn't his first brush with the Society. Ruckh also has served as a judge for the SLAS Innovation Award judging committee for the past three years. "It's a good opportunity to give back to the SLAS organization and also evaluate new approaches and technologies," he says.

Ruckh states that equally important to all of these activities is finding simple ways to escape. "I really believe that having sufficient 'down' time is necessary to relax the focus that is necessary for research," he says, adding that he prefers physical activities from road- and mountain-biking to rock climbing and hiking.

"I also have helped to start a small biotech company in my time outside of the lab," he reports. "The technology is quite a bit different from what I'm working on at my post-doc position. Having a different set of scientific concepts, and also the challenge of the commercialization process, forces me to switch gears and that's also proven to be beneficial. There's already a lot of good wisdom out there, but I think that trying to take in ideas from unrelated research areas pays dividends in the long run."

Seeking Answers in Science

Garrett Mosley also recommends gathering wisdom from inside and outside the lab. "Get as much advice as you can," he shares with others. "There is nothing more valuable than talking to people who have been through your situation before. The more people you talk to, the more perspectives you can get to help you eventually make your own decision."

Mosley credits his parents as playing a major role in his decision to pursue science, and his mentors for keeping the ball rolling. "My desire for learning and my unnatural amount of curiosity have been the driving forces to get me to where I am now," he says.

"The advice and teachings of all the mentors I have had throughout my life also have helped steer me in the right direction," Mosley continues. Those mentors include SLAS members and JALA Editorial Board members Daniel T. Kamei, Ph.D., and Dino Di Carlo, Ph.D., who have guided his graduate career and offer support of his pursuit to launch a company once he graduates.

As an undergraduate, Mosley worked in a research lab during the summer to help boost his application for medical school. "I distinctly remember one day waking up to go into lab and being very excited to see the results of an experiment that had been running over night. I had the realization that something that made me this excited is something that I should be pursuing as a career. So I think back on that day as when I made my decision to become a scientist," he says.

It was important for Mosley to find excitement and a good fit in whatever field he chose. "One of the most important things that I did in my early educational career was to get a broad sense of the fields of science available," he says. He did this by taking interesting classes, even when the subjects didn't help him progress toward his degree, talking with different professors and browsing through information on the internet. In the end, the California native earned a double major in biochemistry and psychology from California Lutheran University during his undergraduate years. He comments that while his degree in psychology hasn't helped directly with work in the lab, it has helped when it comes to giving presentations and communicating research effectively.

A bigger obstacle was the strength of his math background in the face of making a leap from biochemistry as an undergraduate to bioengineering for graduate school. "I overcame this by brute force," says Mosley. "I spent hours out of every day slowly teaching myself the math courses that I was missing."

When not actively engaged in studying and scientific pursuits, Mosley takes his mind off work by playing guitar or video games. "Oddly enough, I find that some of my most creative problem solving has occurred while my mind was half engaged with something not related to the problem," he says. When he needs a complete recharge, he likes to go out with old friends – usually ones who know nothing about science. "If I have time, I take the weekend to go on a snowboarding or waterskiing trip."

As Easy as A (Animals), B (Biology), C (poster Competitions)

Avowed animal lover and avid student Kris Wilson enjoys life outside the lab by caring for her Border Collie dog and young appaloosa horse. "They take up a lot of my free time," she observes, adding that exercising both animals is no mean feat thanks to her busy schedule and the weather of her native Scotland.

Rain or not, it is good Wilson can find free time now. Not so long ago the ambitious academic took on a heavy course load. She left school at 17 to pursue animal biology "literally as soon as I had enough higher grades to allow my university entry," she recounts. "I remember that the head teacher at school was not delighted about this. They always encouraged people to stay for a sixth year before going to university, but I knew what I wanted to do and saw no reason to wait around for a year." She attended the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK.

Upon completion of her degree, Wilson secured a position as a research scientist at a small, early-stage drug discovery company based in Glasgow, Scotland, called Scottish Biomedical. This position provided her with training in several areas including molecular biology, cell biology, molecular pharmacology and screening techniques. The experience enabled Wilson to move on as a research technician within the drug discovery group at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. While working in this role, Wilson decided that she enjoyed the academic environment and embarked upon her Ph.D.

"Luckily, my manager, Scott Webster, Ph.D., was supportive of this decision and helped me to produce a project proposal and apply for Ph.D. funding," Wilson explains. Her KMO assay development project required a collaborative effort between several groups at Edinburgh. In addition to working with Webster, who manages the drug discovery group at the BHF Centre for Cardiovascular Science, Wilson also collaborated with transplant surgeon Damian Mole and Professor John Iredale, based in the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, and Professor Manfred Auer from the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences and School of Biomedical Sciences. Her results allowed progression in screening for hit compounds against an important drug development target.

"The enzyme is a challenging target since it localizes to the mitochondrial outer membrane. As a result, there are few screening techniques which are suitable for screening of the human enzyme," Wilson explains. "Recombinant expression of the human enzyme proved particularly challenging and required a lot of perseverance. This project also required an opportunistic approach since several attempts at targeted screening were not viable due to problems with the enzyme," she continues. "Despite this, the perseverance paid off and several novel screening techniques for targeting human KMO were successfully developed."

Wilson encourages perseverance in research. "I remind myself that if it were easy then someone else would have done it before," she says. "Also, I would encourage trying out new ideas and taking an opportunistic approach to research as this has certainly paid off for me. An example of this was a concept for a new screening assay which is now the subject of a patent application. In theory this assay seemed unlikely to work but in practice has resulted in the development of a promising screening technique with potential for targeting other difficult enzymes."

Wilson also recommends that others enter the SLAS Student Poster Competition. She enjoyed talking with other KMO-focused researchers to learn about their progress and also to pass on technical advice gained from experience with the enzyme. "Participating in SLAS2014 provided good publicity for my research and an opportunity to volunteer," she says. "After enjoying the experience at SLAS2014, I am keen to be more involved."

April 18, 2014