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SLAS2015 Student Poster Winners: Transformed by Science

Young careers take flight as students gain valuable experience and exposure to laboratory science and technology professionals at all levels via the annual SLAS Student Poster Competition.


More than 60 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students participated in the SLAS2015 Student Poster Competition, a transforming experience for the next generation of scientists. The top three presentations chosen from this pool of innovative research each received a $500 cash award and an invitation to submit their work for fast-track publication consideration in one of two SLAS MEDLINE-indexed scientific journals, the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA).

"The poster competition is a fantastic experience!" says Samantha Grist, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (UBC). "Having the opportunity to gain more exposure for your work is really valuable. During the poster session, I had the chance to meet and chat with people from research organizations and companies, while sharing my work and learning more about other fields."

Fellow poster competition winner Juwina Wijaya agrees. "Being a poster winner is a great way to get a feedback on your work from the leading people in the industry who I would not otherwise meet," comments the graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "Winning the poster competition has allowed me to meet people in the SLAS community and expand my network. It also has boosted my confidence. It's great to be recognized for my long hours at the bench."

Grist and Wijaya both traveled to SLAS2015 through the SLAS2015 Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program. The researchers were among 56 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members who received Tony B. awards to present their scientific achievements at SLAS2015. 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. Students interested in travel awards for SLAS2016, should apply by: Monday, August 3, 2015 (deadline for podium and poster presentations), or Monday, September 21, 2015 (poster presentations only).

Another SLAS student poster winner, Kathryn Champ, an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, found that the competition was not only an excellent point for her resume, but a tool for self-improvement.

"I learned so much about myself and my work through the process of developing and submitting my poster," says Champ, who encourages other students to enter next year's competition. "The competition taught me about scientific writing, how to create a poster and refined my presentation skills. These skills will benefit me in the future when I share my work again."

Public speaking and presentations can be intimidating, Champ acknowledges. "The fact that I got to present to such an intelligent group of people who enjoyed my work and awarded me this prize has given me confidence that I can present," she says. "I think winning this competition will serve as a starting point for my introduction in the professional medical world."

A Legacy with Retinoblastoma

Champ has a personal background with her poster topic, retinoblastoma. She was diagnosed with the disease when she was just six months old. Rather than treating it with rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, Champ's oncologist, David Abramson, M.D., recommended enucleation, or surgical removal of Champ's eye, as the treatment option that would most effectively prevent the cancer from spreading.

"Almost immediately after I was diagnosed, I had the surgery and was fitted with a prosthetic eye to wear," she comments. "My vision as it is now is basically all I've ever known. I have adjusted so well over the years that I can see perfectly fine." She has been cancer free since the surgery, and during two years' worth of follow up appointments, Champ and her parents formed a lasting bond with Abramson. During Champ's sophomore year of high school, Abramson emailed her about a position working in the lab of his colleague, Hakim Djaballah, Ph.D.

"I had never made a resume before but I put one together, had a phone interview and Dr. Djaballah, who also is a member of the SLAS JBS Editorial Board, offered me a job in the High-Throughput Screening Core Facility (HTSCF) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City," Champ explains. This was the hospital in which she received treatment as a baby and where the research behind her poster entry was done several years later.

Her winning poster entry, "Screening for Synergy of Resveratrol and Repurposed Drugs Towards Retinoblastoma," reports on a method to improve treatment for the rare childhood eye cancer. Her team investigated the combination of therapies using repurposed drugs with the nutraceutical resveratrol, a compound found in red grapes that is used as a supplement with claims of cardioprotective and antineoplastic effects. Champ hypothesized that resveratrol, which is safe for human use and a good candidate for a synergy study, could be therapeutic against retinoblastoma when combined with approved drugs, and she used high-throughput screening to identify compounds from chemical libraries that were potent when combined with resveratrol.

She credits her early career success to four summer internships at Sloan Kettering where she gained her knowledge of lab equipment and techniques. "Every summer I learned something new," Champ says. "I was given some excellent advice when I started working at HTSCF as an inexperienced high school student. Don't be afraid to admit you don't know the answer to something, because what you admit you don't know is what you end up learning the most from. Also continuing to challenge yourself intellectually is essential to learning how to deal with future challenges you may face."

She is grateful to Dr. Djaballah for his mentoring and for his invitations to work in his lab. "He has absolutely inspired my love of research in the cancer field. I also have Dr. Abramson to thank for so successfully treating my cancer and inspiring me to pursue a career in medicine," says Champ.

As a junior at Johns Hopkins, Champ is studying for her bachelor's degree in chemistry, while following a premed track and continuing to pursue research. She is currently conducting research in antiparasitic drug discovery in the Department of Pharmacology under Dr. Theresa Shapiro.

To balance her academic life, Champ likes to bond with other students through her membership in the Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity. "I appreciate the bonds I have formed with each one of my sisters, and to have such a supportive group of friends is very important to me," she comments. A support network is important for Champ's next moves.

"I plan on taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this summer and I am already beginning my preparation to apply to M.D./Ph.D. programs when I graduate," she says. "I will be taking a gap year to work in research and complete my applications to graduate school." A primary entry on those applications will be her SLAS2015 poster competition win.

Champ's introduction to the Society came from SLAS member and JBS author Constantin Radu, Ph.D., who she met the first summer she worked in the HTSCF. He was the lab manager and resident expert in automation operations who taught her how to use "just about all of the equipment and was a large contributor to my work," Champ says. "Constantin was even the person to inform me about the SLAS student poster competition and suggest I submit my work! He has been so supportive of my desire to attend graduate school, especially encouraging me to go the M.D./Ph.D. route. He checks up on me during the school year when I'm not around in New York and continues to inspire me to pursue my dream career."

She is firmly on the path to pursue that career, describing her personal experience as a cancer survivor as the impetus for her success. "Retinoblastoma changed my life," Champ says. "The fact that I am able to conduct this incredible work on the disease that I had is so special to me and the idea that my work could possibly end up helping children who have a similar situation as me is inspiring."

Contributing to Cancer Research with a Passion for Problem Solving

Samantha Grist also had an early brush with cancer that influenced her pursuit of science. As a young child, she lost several family members to various forms of the disease and decided then she wanted to join the quest for a cure. Between that time and her graduate work as an adult, she discovered a love for solving engineering problems by working on interdisciplinary projects.

The Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, native moved to Vancouver for high school and chose to stay there to attend college at Simon Fraser University. The school offered a small engineering program and internship opportunities. "I studied engineering physics in order to learn more of the theoretical background governing the concepts we learned in engineering. I found that this additional information on why things worked really helped me to gain a better understanding of the engineering concepts," Grist comments.

Engineering physics was also an honors program, which allowed Grist to complete an undergraduate thesis and a related project. Conducted within the lab group of Bonnie Gray, Ph.D., at the university, the project involved using microfluidics to trap single, antibody-secreting cells for integration with a novel biosensor. During the project, Grist worked with other students and supervisors in physics, molecular biology and biochemistry, which helped her realize a passion for interdisciplinary research.

"From this I also learned that I enjoy using concepts in engineering and microtechnology to try to tackle problems in health sciences," Grist shares, adding that the collaborative work led her to seek graduate projects that offered the same kind of interdisciplinary experience. She chose to pursue graduate studies at UBC because of its research reputation.

"My supervisors are a part of the UBC interdisciplinary microsystems and nanotechnology group and work in collaboration with other researchers at UBC, the British Columbia Cancer Research Centre (BCCRC), the University of Washington, and other universities," says Grist. Her graduate work has focused on two distinct projects that enrich her academic experience. The first, under the supervision of Karen Cheung, Ph.D., involves improving cancer treatment testing environments, and the other, directed by Lukas Chrostowski, Ph.D., concerns optical biosensors for disease detection.

Her winning poster entry, "A Microfluidic Device with Integrated Oxygen Sensors for the Cell-Based Screening of Cancer Treatments under Transient Hypoxia," outlines a novel system for long-term cell culture that harnesses the short diffusion distances of microfluidics (<1 mm) to control oxygen levels within a chamber for 2-D or 3-D cell culture, providing the ability to form transient hypoxic profiles at physiologically-relevant time scales.

To relax from the pressures of her academic schedule, Grist enjoys going for long walks through Vancouver. "I find that it relaxes me and helps me to think of new solutions to problems that I'm encountering in my work," she says. "I also enjoy visiting bird sanctuaries in my city to see and photograph wild, migratory birds, as it allows me to unwind and appreciate nature."

While she feels fortunate in her studies thus far, and grateful for the incredible opportunities she has received, Grist shares that conquering confidence was an obstacle in her path. Fortunately, she got involved early in Women in Engineering and learned that networking with others is a great way to overcome this fairly common problem among female engineering students.

She describes winning the SLAS2015 Student Poster Competition as another confidence boost. "Meeting people interested in my group's work gave me new inspiration," Grist comments. Several of her experiences at the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition also provided connecting points for the graduate student from having her poster displayed in the SLAS2015 Member Center to participating in the SLAS2015 Career Connections and Mentorship Programs.

"I hadn't encountered anything like the SLAS Career Connections and Mentorship Programs at other conferences I've attended," she comments. They were extremely beneficial for me especially as I reach the final year of my Ph.D. Having the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Profs. Alan Anderson and Dan Eustace at the conference was really inspirational for me. I learned a lot from them in a very short time about career skills and steps to take after completing the Ph.D." She adds that the wealth of information at the expo and the opportunity for introductions to several companies that are highly relevant to her work were invaluable.

"The ample opportunities for networking at the conference, especially those targeted towards students and early career professionals, allowed me to meet and connect with other students and professionals from all over the world," Grist concludes.

Beyond the Family Business

Juwina Wijaya's journey into science started in Indonesia, but hit many roadblocks. "My early exposure to science was fairly limited in Jakarta, where I grew up," she says. "What got me interested in science initially was the desire to not work for my dad. He is a businessman and an entrepreneur from a family of non-scientists where everyone takes over their parents' business after they graduate from college." With her family's support, Wijaya stepped outside the tradition and sought a profession of her own.

In junior high school, she began to discover and appreciate the beauty and complexity of the systems in the human body. "My affinity was towards biology and chemistry, subjects that helped me understand the fundamental questions about nature that I frequently pondered," Wijaya says, adding that Indonesia's limited science and research opportunities led her pursue studies in the U.S. after high school.

She first attended Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA, completing coursework that gave her a taste of biology, chemistry and experimental methodologies. A transfer to UCLA to expand her educational opportunities in these subjects opened a whole new world to Wijaya. "I began my first two quarters at UCLA by enrolling in biochemistry courses and found myself captivated by the topics," she comments. "Even though I sometimes felt buried under a mountain of metabolism flash cards, I never lost the joy of discovering the depth of biochemical methods and the essential processes of life."

Wijaya believes that a professional is not formed by books alone, but also from a variety of experiences. "To gain hands-on exposure to research in the field of biochemistry, I actively sought the opportunity to work in a laboratory setting," she explains. "Dr. Carla Koehler graciously invited me into her laboratory for training and mentorship after I completed her metabolism course in 2008."

Koehler put Wijaya in charge of the zebrafish facility, and Wijaya jokes that she literally started at the bottom of the food chain. The fish were housed in the basement of the building where Koehler's lab was located. While Wijaya's initial responsibility was to ensure that each fish tank's pH, humidity and water system worked properly, she also managed "a lot of fish husbandry," and eventually worked her way up a few floors to the graduate laboratory.

"About six months after I started maintaining the zebra fish facility, Dr. Koehler saw that I was very interested in doing research. To give me more biochemistry experience, she paired me with SLAS member and winner of the 2010 JBS/SBS Academic Excellence Award Samuel Hasson, Ph.D., who was a graduate student at the time," Wijaya explains.

"Sam was using small molecules to understand the mechanisms of protein imports into mitochondria," Wijaya explains. "There are not a lot of tools available to study mitochondria and to be able to use a new approach to answer scientific questions is really fascinating to me." After working with Hasson for about three months during her senior year, Koehler allowed Wijaya to develop an independent project using small molecules to study mitochondrial proteases, which then developed into her dissertation work when she was admitted to the UCLA biochemistry graduate program. It also became her SLAS2015 Student Poster Competition submission.

Wijaya's entry, "Utilizing Small Molecules to Study Mitochondrial Presequence-degrading Protease," examines the process of discovering and utilizing small-molecule modulators to characterize presequence-degrading protease (PreP). PreP functions to degrade small peptides that direct proteins to mitochondria, but it has been implicated in Alzheimer's disease due to its ability to degrade amyloid-beta peptide (Aβ). Nonetheless, not much is known about this protease. Wijaya adapted an in vitro fluorescence donor-quencher-based assay for high-throughput screening (HTS) of PreP modulators. From a collection of 88,000 drug-like small molecules, Wijaya's team identified MitoBloCK-60, a specific inhibitor of PreP.

"I would not be where I am today if it weren't for my mentors," Wijaya says of Koehler and Hasson, who also encouraged her to apply for the Tony B. travel award. "My interest in HTS and drug discovery sparked during the long hours at the bench with Sam." She also credits another SLAS member, Robert Damoiseaux, Ph.D., the scientific director at UCLA Molecular Screening Shared Resources (MSSR), whose resourcefulness and support throughout her time at UCLA has been invaluable.

"As I am nearing the completion of my graduate career, I have learned the importance of acknowledging limitations in canonical methods and engaging in new ideas and scientific methodologies," Wijaya observes. "My project and the people around me taught me to embrace the combination of tenacity, creativity and open-mindedness."

When her academic tenacity needs a rest, Wijaya takes up exercise. Everything from long work outs at the gym to salsa dancing to skiing help her recharge for lab work. "I find working out to be my saving grace in graduate school," Wijaya says, adding that she knows that constantly thinking about work is not productive. "I find that exercise helps me with that. The only time that I absolutely do not think about work is during my hour-long exercise, a few times a week."

Being at the gym has also helped Wijaya make friends outside of her field of studies. "It is fun and refreshing to hang out with friends in the social sciences. I really enjoy learning about new cultures and discovering different worldviews," she comments.

As for science, Wijaya advises: "Scientific research is a tough field. It can get frustrating on daily basis trying to figure out what things are not working. You have to have a mental toughness toward research. When it finally works, it is all worth it. Ask a lot of questions, listen and don't give up."

June 1, 2015