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SLAS2018 Student Poster Competition Winners Swim Broader, Not Just Deeper

Chosen from a broad pool of innovative research, Xiao Wang, Ph.D., Sri Teja Mullapudi, M.Tech., and John Hickey, B.Sc., took top honors out of 50 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students who participated in the SLAS2018 Student Poster Competition. The winners also seized opportunities to expand the audience for their research at this intersection of life sciences discovery and technology.

“Winning the SLAS poster competition was a fantastic opportunity for me,” says John Hickey, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (Baltimore, MD). “It allowed me to present my research to a cadre of expert panelists and get their feedback, enabled potential collaboration with a panelist who is also working on immunotherapy and introduced me to the other amazing student poster finalists. We became friends and will stay in contact beyond the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition.”

The process of preparing for the SLAS Student Poster Competition streamlined Hickey’s research and helped him explain it to others. “The competition helped me scrutinize the layout and content of my poster more closely than I usually do before going to a conference,” he explains. “In the end, the process taught me more about designing an effective scientific poster, and I ended up with a more polished product.”

Sri Teja Mullapudi agrees. No newcomer to SLAS student poster competitions, Mullapudi’s poster win at the 2016 SLAS Europe High-Content Screening Conference (Dresden, Germany) not only helped offset his travel expenses to present his research at SLAS2017, but also helped him prepare for his second win at SLAS2018. “SLAS events attract professionals who represent a diverse range of scientific and technical expertise," says the Ph.D. candidate in genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research (MPI, Bad Nauheim, Germany). “As I addressed questions from experts from other fields of science, it gave me a new perspective about my research. The poster presentation process improves your science communication skills,” he says.

Xiao Wang, a research fellow from the BioMEMS Resource Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School (Charlestown, MA), had a similar experience. “The competition dramatically increased the exposure of my team’s work to the community, and the judges gave me great advice and valuable suggestions for our research,” says Wang. In addition, he experienced multiple opportunities to discuss his work with attendees representing both academia and industry, and learned about cutting-edge techniques that are still being developed. “Understanding both the needs in the pharmaceutical industry and the progress in academic research is extremely beneficial for my own research,” he says.

Hickey, Mullapudi and Wang each received a $500 cash award and an invitation to submit their work for fast-track publication consideration in one of SLAS’s two PubMed:MEDLINE-indexed scientific journals, SLAS Discovery (Advancing Life Sciences R&D) and SLAS Technology (Translating Life Sciences Innovation).

In addition to this, Wang and Mullapudi are among 65 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members from 15 different countries who earned SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Awards, which included conference registration, airfare and hotel accommodations at SLAS2018. SLAS travel award recipients also were invited to enroll in a short course for no additional cost.

An Insatiable Sense of Wonder

At MPI, Mullapudi works with Didier Stainier, Ph.D., to find novel insulin-independent strategies to regulate glucose levels in diabetic conditions. He is excited to work with Stainier, who Mullapudi describes as an exceptional scientist, adept at identifying strengths and talents in his students and nurturing and optimizing those skills. "Didier gave me the freedom and support to propose and execute projects that would be considered far too risky elsewhere," says Mullapudi.

An example of this academic freedom is Mullapudi's prize-winning poster, "In Vivo Screening to Identify Insulin-Independent Modulators of Metabolism Identifies Novel Candidates.” In this research, he explores new therapies for metabolic control of type 2 diabetes by developing a novel in vivo high-throughput screening (HTS) strategy for identifying insulin-independent modulators of metabolism by recreating some of the features of late-stage diabetes using the zebrafish and a CRISPR-Cas9 mediated deletion allele for insulin. This strategy is the first of its kind to probe for insulin-independent signaling pathways and has the potential to unravel novel signaling pathways as targets for diabetes therapy, including cases in which insulin resistance has developed.

Mullapudi cultivated his insatiable sense of wonder while growing up in the suburbs of Pune, India. His enterprising father encouraged him to dismantle everyday household items for careful examination. This led to big dreams and Mullapudi leaving home at 16 to pursue higher education in Hyderabad, India, 350 miles away.

"Moving away from home meant a lot more responsibility," explains Mullapudi, who launched a relentless two-year effort to climb the academic ladder and secure a place in one of India's top engineering schools. Out of 350,000 candidates, Mullapudi became one of the top 3,500 to gain admission to the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras; Chennai, India).

He continued to work hard, pursuing dual bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biotechnology. "I was very fortunate to have been surrounded by stimulating colleagues, caring mentors and supportive friends," he says, adding that his time at IIT Madras was a great influence on his personality. His experience there also developed his technical, analytical and transferable skills as he participated in international competitions, internships and voluntary leadership positions. "Above all, I developed a knack for learning efficiently, yet quickly," he continues.

This knack was helpful as he pursued his master's thesis. With guidance from Sundarasamy Mahalingam, Ph.D., Mullapudi studied how the Indian strains of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) use envelope proteins to gain access into human cells. "This vital property of viruses, and the possibility to use them as delivery agents for human gene and cell therapies, inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. in understanding and modulating cell fate through genetic and chemical strategies," he says.

When he’s not in the lab or planning his postdoc future, Mullapudi spends time seriously kicking a soccer ball. "If I did not love being in science so much, I would have surely pursued professional football!" he declares, sharing that he currently plays about eight hours a week in a local league.

"Interacting with this completely new circle of friends has helped me learn German and dive deeper into German culture," Mullapudi explains. "I am able to disconnect from challenges in the lab and adopt a fresh approach every time I go back to work. This keeps me from being frustrated with work when I hit a roadblock and keeps me energized to take on that next challenge."

To keep energy and curiosity flowing, Mullapudi says "students should swim broader and not just deeper. Going too deep into a subject or too narrow in your field early in your career can result in frustration. Introducing interdisciplinary aspects to my work, watching TED talks and reading popular science magazines like Science Daily or The Scientist have greatly broadened my knowledge and nurtured the innate curiosity that keeps me motivated,” he advises.

Likewise, attending multi-disciplinary SLAS events broadens his knowledge of life sciences discovery and technology. "The additional feedback I received through SLAS strengthens my studies and the resulting contacts and networks I developed will help me make a more informed decision for my postdoctoral plans,” Mullapudi says.

Exploring the Mysteries of Microfluidics and Music

"While applying for the graduate school, I started to read papers on microfluidics, and I was amazed by this technology,” says Wang, who credits his passionate curiosity for technology, biology and art to his parents when he was young. “It is amazing to me that these elegantly-designed microdevices can provide such versatile and powerful functions to solve a large variety of real-world problems in biomedical engineering and clinical diagnosis.”

After earning his B.Sc. in electrical engineering in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, one of the top ten universities in China, Wang’s love for biology and engineering led him into microfluidics and he decided he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. doing biomedical research in the United States.

While working on a Ph.D. in the department of electrical engineering from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH), Wang studied with Ph.D. advisor Ian Papautsky, Ph.D. Although Papautsky was in the electrical engineering department, he conducted biomedical research and gave Wang a foothold in designing microfluidic devices for cellular sample preparation. This not only supported Wang’s research goals, but also led to more than 20 journal, conference publications and patents.

"Cellular sample preparation is an upstream process for selecting the cells of interest. The selected cells are then used for downstream cellular, proteomic and genomic analysis," says Wang. "When I built those upstream devices for cell separation, I strongly felt that the picture would not be complete if I didn't learn and develop those downstream assays and tools for cell analysis.” To achieve this, Wang secured a postdoc position in the BioMEMS Resource Center at Harvard University Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital where he began to develop microfluidic tools to study cells and eventually use the tools to improve clinical diagnosis and drug discovery in the lab of principal investigator Daniel Irimia, M.D., Ph.D.

In the BioMEMS Resource Center, the team develops microfluidic assays to study immune cells with high temporal and spatial resolution. "Using microfluidics, we are able to study how immune cells migrate and how they communicate in healthy individuals and patients as well as with and without drugs," says Wang. "By monitoring the behaviors of immune cells, we discovered novel cellular markers for disease diagnosis and drug development."

Wang presented an example of this work at SLAS2018 in his poster, "Squeeze & Chemotax: A High-Throughput Microfluidic Assay for Probing the Effect of Deformation on Leukocyte Chemotaxis." His microfluidic chemotaxis assay for clinical diagnosis of infections and inflammatory diseases not only provides highly reliable and unique information in the biological study of leukocyte deformation, but also serves as a high-throughput platform for therapeutic screening and clinical diagnosis.

Wang reports that obstacles he had to overcome in his research “were those most common to scientists and engineers–that our experimental results won’t agree with our expectations or that our devices do not work as we want them to," he says. "Sometimes the research process can be very frustrating, but we have to realize that these obstacles usually mean that we do not understand the underlying principles well enough. These obstacles are also great opportunities to learn and improve."

When he hits an obstacle or needs perspective, Wang turns to music. "I love classical music and have played piano for more than 20 years. When I get stuck in some aspects of my research, I play Chopin, Mozart or Bach to reset," he says, adding that he also enjoys traveling with his wife, Wenjing Kang, Ph.D., who is a postdoc in the field of microfluidics at Northeastern University. “My wife and I love to explore food and culture from different parts of the world.” Wang says. “If we stay home, we discuss microfluidics.”

"In general, I think embracing challenges is the best way for a person to learn, improve and grow. It may make you feel unsafe, frustrated and even defeated when you are dealing with challenges, but you should learn from mistakes and keep moving forward. After you overcome the challenges, you will become much stronger than you were.”

SLAS2018 provided Wang with a great learning opportunity. “I have a much better understanding now of the widely-used technology and devices in the pharmaceutical industry and the factors that academic researchers need to consider when developing next-generation tools,” he says.

T Cells, Teaching and Tcrunch: Embracing All of Academia

His winning poster presentation, "High-Throughput Enrichment and Identification of Rare Antigen-Specific CD8+ T Cells," doesn’t just describe how Hickey’s lab research unfolded at Johns Hopkins. It represents the culmination of a consuming fascination with biomedical engineering.

While an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at Brigham Young University (Provo, UT), Hickey’s then girlfriend, now wife, Jenna, studied neuroscience, and she frequently told him what she was learning in class. "I ate up what she told me about how the body worked,” he says. He knew that he had uncovered a new passion. “I found that I was researching biomedical engineering research results with what spare time I had,” he says, adding that he decided to pursue a Ph.D. program.

Championed by his wife, Hickey moved the pair from Utah to Maryland and launched his studies, going straight from his undergraduate degree (B.Sc., chemical engineering) to his Ph.D. program. In his research in the labs of Jonathan Schneck, M.D., Ph.D., and Hai-Quan Mao, Ph.D., Hickey explores how to develop new biomaterial targets and therapeutics for the immune system, particularly in the area of rare CD8+ T cells, which mediate killing of infected or cancerous cells.

To better identify and characterize antigen-specific CD8+ T cells, Hickey developed an artificial antigen-presenting cell (aAPC), which is a paramagnetic particle coupled to both peptide-loaded major histocompatibility complexes (pMHCs), to enrich antigen-specific CD8+ T cells, and a co-stimulatory signal to stimulate and expand these rare cells to high frequencies. The team uses CD8+ T cells to adoptively transfer and mediate therapeutic benefit in a tumor model. By transforming this technology to be amenable for high-throughput screening, Hickey's team generated a tool that can be used both in the laboratory and the clinic.

Hickey anticipates that this technology will not only inform researchers on antigen-specific CD8+ T cell characterization and lead to a greater understanding of their role in the immune response, but will also better enable novel neo-antigen discovery for cellular therapies in personalized medicine.

When not absorbed in research at Johns Hopkins, Hickey indulges another academic pursuit, teaching. "I discovered two of my passions when I was a volunteer missionary for two years in Greece. I found I loved working with community organizations to benefit those who are disadvantaged. I also realized how much I loved teaching," he says. He developed the curriculum for two undergraduate courses—“Immunoengineering: A New Frontier” and “Immunoengineering: Fighting Disease in Developing Countries”—and is in the process of developing the curriculum for an online master’s-level class: “Immunoengineering.”

While seeking feedback on the courses he teaches, Hickey used his engineering background to invent an app, called Tcrunch, that enables frequent and easy teacher-student interaction. Funded by the Shark Tank Program at the Johns Hopkins' Center for Educational Resources, the app is available for free from the Apple and Google Play app stores.

One wonders where he has the time, but it's all in a day's work for Hickey, who daily steps away from the lab to reset and recharge. “I love getting home early to play with my son with his Hot Wheels cars and Legos or go to the park," he says, adding that exercise is a tool he uses to help process thoughts from the day. "I also love going on dates and adventures with my wife on weekends, learning about history or having a new culinary experience."

Hickey reports that he enjoyed a kind of family connection at SLAS2018, too. "This was my first interaction with SLAS and first time attending the conference, and everyone was so kind. Even though there were thousands of people at the conference, all the networking and discussion activities made me feel like I was part of a small family," he explains.

Get Involved at SLAS2019

Students interested in applying for an SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award for SLAS2019 or entering the SLAS2019 Student Poster Competition should keep their eyes on the SLAS2019 website for upcoming deadlines for podium and poster presentations! SLAS2019 is set for Feb. 2-6 in Washington, DC.

April 9, 2018