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SLAS2016 Student Poster Winners: At the Top of the Science Class

"Information, Innovation, Inspiration" was more than the theme of SLAS2016. It was the back story for the winners of the SLAS2016 Student Poster Competition.

Information drawn from research into drug resistance mechanisms in breast cancer led Carrie Lovitt, Ph.D., to further explore the tumor microenvironment. Innovation helped Joohun Kang, Ph.D., take one successful platform and turn it into an award-winning adaptation. Inspiration guided Masturah Bte Mohd Abdul Rashid's tireless pursuit for answers to fill the gap left in multidrug regimens for multiple myeloma.

These winners represent the most notable achievements of more than 60 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students who participated in the annual SLAS Student Poster Competition, an opportunity for the next generation of scientists to present innovative research and jump start their careers in life sciences discovery and technology. Each winner received a $500 cash award and an invitation to submit their work for fast-track publication consideration in the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA), the official SLAS scientific journals.

Mohd Abdul Rashid, Lovitt and Kang also traveled to SLAS2016 through the SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program, which brings students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members to the event to present their scientific achievements. 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 also are invited to enroll in a short course for no additional cost.

"Attending SLAS2016 was in itself a good platform to share my research and exchange ideas with people who are working in the same field. Winning the student poster competition was an added bonus," says JALA author Mohd Abdul Rashid, a second-year doctoral student at National University of Singapore (NUS). "This competition provided more opportunities to share my project with the rest of the world, as well as a great platform for students to practice sharing their ideas and research in a coherent manner."

Lovitt, a research fellow at Griffith University in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, highly recommends that other students enter the competition. "I was thrilled to present my research and subsequently receive an award," she says. "Students and early career professionals should take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to discuss their research with other scientists. This can result in the development of new perspectives."

Kang agreed. "I am excited to have this award during this transition time as I complete my postdoctoral training," he said during an interview at the SLAS2016 Exhibition. "Soon I will begin my position as an assistant professor in Korea and start my own laboratory pursuing research as an independent principal investigator."

The Power of Perseverance

Determination shaped Masturah Bte Mohd Abdul Rashid's journey into research. "We wouldn't be walking now had we given up after falling umpteen times when learning how to walk when we were young," she observes.

Her academic experiences shaped her attitude toward obstacles. Mohd Abdul Rashid remembers a setback suffered for not doing well on a math test in high school. "It might seem like a trivial obstacle, but it taught me to get back up and do well for the subsequent test," she explains. "I also learned the art of letting go as one test was not going to determine the path of the rest of my life."

Mohd Abdul Rashid credits Singapore's heavy investment in the country's education system for making it easy to cultivate her love of STEM subjects. "Deciding what to do was not exactly a problem. Since I was more interested in biology, I pursued life sciences," she continues. She completed her bachelor's degree with honors in life sciences at NUS and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the university's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.

Her poster presentation, "Synergistic Combinations Against Bortezomib-Resistant Multiple Myeloma Derived via Phenotypic Personalized Medicine (PPM)," reflects the level of persistence in her research. The study bridges the gap in multidrug regimens for multiple myeloma that is left by the vast combinatorial dosing space and the complexity of biological systems. Mohd Abdul Rashid used PPM to objectively identify optimal drug combinations to target the desired system of interest. PPM projects interactions between drugs via response surface maps. Mohd Abdul Rashid's research successfully indentified potential optimal drug combinations for Bortezomib-resistant RPMI 8226 as projected via PPM, with both combinations exhibiting synergistic response surface maps.

"I became interested in research when I embarked on an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in Science (UROPS) project," Mohd Abdul Rashid explains. "I was working on muscle cachexia and continued to pursue this field for my final year honors project as well. This exposure piqued my interest in oncology research and helped me decide to work on something that directly affects cancer for graduate school."

Mohd Abdul Rashid, whose busy schedule includes time for recreational trips, family, friends and occasional rounds of netball, notes: "Traveling definitely recharges my creative thinking. It allows me to appreciate the bountiful beauty of the world and also to indulge in different cultures."

One trip that definitely impressed her was to SLAS2016, her first SLAS International Conference and Exhibition. She enjoyed the Society's supportive community and particularly the encouragement extended to students and post-docs. "Being part of SLAS2016 has provided a wonderful opportunity for me to share my research on an international level and at the same time to exchange ideas with those who are in the same field. SLAS is highly supportive of students as evidenced by the mentoring services that were available during SLAS2016," she says. "SLAS encourages and provides opportunities for researchers whose work is involved in automation and harnesses this to improve the quality of research and ultimately improves the professional lives of its target audience."

Exploring Cancer Cells in Multiple Dimensions

Carrie Lovitt, Ph.D., embraced biology from the beginning, always intrigued by how things work. However, a research project during her undergraduate years in the laboratory of Julian Rood, Ph.D., in the Department of Microbiology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, brought her career into focus.

"What attracted me the most to a research career while working on this project was the novelty of performing experiments and analyzing the results in addition to the opportunity to work on important research questions," Lovitt says.

This experience was a springboard to her current research success, which includes her poster competition subject, "Automated Evaluation of Anti-Cancer Activity in Advanced Tumor Models." In this poster presentation, Lovitt studies the tumor microenvironment and its impact on therapeutic efficacy. The authors achieved this using breast cancer models that are compatible with liquid handling robotics, high-content imaging and analysis techniques combined with automated measurement of the cellular metabolic activity. They evaluated a panel of chemotherapeutics against tumor models cultured in two- and three-dimensional conditions to determine that cell culture conditions significantly impact experimental results.

Lovitt's specific interest in cancer research developed during her employment in the laboratory of Vicky Avery, Ph.D., at the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. Even though the research conducted dealt with Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent for malaria, Lovitt's research focus shifted to cancer because of the disease's impact on her own family and her desire to pursue drug resistance issues surrounding it. She entered a doctoral program to study cancer under Avery and is currently continuing her postdoctoral studies in the same field.

Lovitt feels that the SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award that enabled her to attend SLAS2016 greatly supported her research. "While there, I networked with SLAS members, learned about the latest advancements in my field and received valuable feedback on my research," she comments.

In addition, Lovitt added a short course to her SLAS2016 schedule, "3D Cell-Based Assays for Drug De-Risking." "This course was an excellent overview of current 3D cell culture techniques, examples of 3D cell culture assays adapted for drug discovery programs and technological advances," she comments, adding that she also participated in several SLAS Career Connections programs including "The Negotiation Process." "These sessions were extremely useful, providing information on career opportunities and progression for early career scientists," Lovitt says.

As her career takes off, Lovitt invests extra effort into building a balance in her life. Outside of the laboratory she frequently heads to the beach and makes time to travel. In 2014 she traveled to Germany and Austria, exploring Munich, the Alps and Salzburg. Highlights of her time spent at SLAS2016 in San Diego included the U.S.S. Midway and the Gaslamp Quarter. "I enjoy traveling and by attending conferences around the world I have been exceptionally lucky to meet many interesting and talented scientists," she concludes.

Expediting Food Contamination Detection

For Joohun Kang, Ph.D., the road to the SLAS Student Poster Competition began at an SLAS2015 podium. His work, entitled "Bioinspired Spleen-on-a-chip for Sepsis Therapy," evolved into an award-winning poster when he thoughtfully modified the device described in his presentation to create a different design to improve the diagnostics used to rapidly detect severe food-borne disease and outbreaks.

Identifying rare pathogenic microorganisms contaminating food products is important to consumer and food industry safety, observed Kang, a Technology Development Fellow at the Wyss Institute, and recent research fellow at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School under bioengineering professor Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Wyss Institute. After studying the technological advances in food diagnostics, Kang learned that conventional techniques still require a full eight hours to obtain results. He began to consider how an adapted design to his existing biospleen device might provide rapid results.

The biospleen, a microfluidic magnetic separation device, cleanses blood for sepsis therapy much like a human spleen. The device can continuously remove pathogens and toxins from flowing blood without first identifying the infectious agent, and thereby inhibit the sepsis inflammatory cascade. The biospleen originally featured saline channels on top and blood channels on the bottom. Its adapted design now uses a single-channel design, a side chamber array and works in conjunction with magnetic beads coated with a broad-spectrum opsonin molecule, Fc-Mannose Binding Lectin (FcMBL), to capture a wide range of bacteria and fungi.

"When the food contaminant samples flow through the device, only the bacterial or fungal cells bound with our magnetic particles are captured by an external magnetic field that we apply," Kang explains in a recent audio blog with The Lab Man, aka SLAS Education Director Steve Hamilton, Ph.D. The research is described in Kang's award-winning poster, "Rapid Enumeration and Identification of Rare Food Contaminant Using a Magnetic Microfluidic Device and FcMBL-conjugated Magnetic Particles."

When asked what surprised his team during their work on the device, Kang says that it was the resulting sensitivity of the modified platform. "Conventional technology can only detect more than 10 bacterial or fungal cells per gram in the sample. We demonstrated that our platform can detect even less than one cell per gram," he comments.

Undeterred by the demanding process of adapting the biospleen's design to suit new needs, Kang comments that it was his team's own adaptability that made it happen. "In order to achieve the goal, we needed expertise ranging from biology and protein engineering to microfabrication and commercialization. Our team's diverse backgrounds in academics and industry helped us overcome the technological challenges."

Students: Application Deadlines for SLAS2017 Tony B. Academic Awards Program

Students: watch SLAS2017.org if you are interested in applying for the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards Program for SLAS2017.

April 4, 2016