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Inspired Scientists: SLAS2013 Student Poster Award Winners Share their Stories

Although they come from different backgrounds – one is a former high school teacher, another is a chemical engineer – the SLAS2013 Student Poster Competition winners share a common curiosity and love of science. The SLAS2013 Student Poster Competition offered them a chance to advance their work and actively engage as the next generation of laboratory science and technology leaders.


"It's an honor to be selected as one of the winners," says SLAS member Yang Wu, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Medicine. She feels that her winning entry, "Discovery of Regulators of Receptor Internalization by High-Throughput Flow Cytometry," validates her transition from chemical to biomedical engineering.

"It's challenging to work in a new field, so it means a lot to me when my hard work is recognized and rewarded. SLAS provides a unique platform for researchers from both biological and engineering fields. People with diverse backgrounds can benefit from each other's perspective," Wu says. "Entering SLAS's poster competition is a great way to share your findings, get feedback and expand your professional network – and you can do it all for free!"

Michael T. Jacobs, B.S., appreciates the feedback he collected for his award-winning poster, "A Novel Nanotexturing Approach for Enhanced Biomarker Detection," which helped him further investigate how to create more robust point-of-care diagnostic sensing devices.

Throughout his educational career Jacobs has loved learning. "Unlike many of my fellow students in high school and college, I actually enjoyed going to my classes because I was genuinely interested in what they had to offer," comments the graduate research assistant in the Department of Bioengineering at The University of Texas Dallas (UT Dallas). "Considering this was my first poster competition, the award gave me a great deal of confidence that my research was on the right path."

SLAS member Kamran Honarnejad, M.Sc., agrees. "Not only does this competition bring the students and their work a broader visibility and recognition, but it also paves their way into a successful scientific career, particularly within the SLAS community," says the Ph.D. student in the Department of Translational Brain Research in the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) at the Center for Neuropathology, Ludwig Maximilian University Munich (LMU Munich).

Honarnejad's winning poster, "Development and Implementation of a High-Throughput FRET-Based Calcium Imaging Assay for Alzheimer's Disease Drug Screening," is just one result of his scientific persistence. "I think as a scientist, the first thing one learns is that early attempts at something may not work," he comments. "That's why it is important to not give up, to be long-term oriented and to not let early failures affect your emotional status. This approach definitely helps young scientists."

SLAS Supports Student Scientists

Honarnejad encourages students to submit poster abstracts for SLAS2014, Jan. 18-22 in San Diego, CA. In the months since he received the $500 poster prize at SLAS2013, he was invited to submit a manuscript to the Journal of Biomolecular Screening's (JBS) upcoming Special Issue on Phenotypic Drug Discovery and to participate as a manuscript reviewer for JBS, which is one of two internationally recognized, MEDLINE-indexed scientific journals published by SLAS.

His first interaction with the SLAS community was last September in Basel, Switzerland at MipTec 2012, the European drug discovery conference and exhibition presented in collaboration with SLAS. During the event Honarnejad and colleague Alexander Daschner were named SLAS Young Scientist Award delegates. The pair went on to present their work at SLAS2013. "It was reassuring to see that the same work that won an award in Basel was also a winner with the SLAS community in Orlando," Honarnejad says. "I find it absolutely amazing how SLAS supports scientists quite early in their careers."

As exciting as it is to promote new discoveries, limited resources can keep students and junior faculty members from traveling to scientific meetings. "This is why the SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program is such a rare and fantastic opportunity for fellow junior faculty members to attend the SLAS conference," says Wu, who along with Jacobs were among 45 students, postdocs and junior faculty members who received Tony B. awards to attend SLAS2013. 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.

"Through the conference, we have the opportunity to promote our research, extend our professional network, explore what's already in the market and see what needs to be done," Wu notes. "This process sometimes leads to future grant proposals, intra-institutional collaborations with peers and more."

While the October 28 deadline for the SLAS2014 Student Poster Competition is weeks away, the application deadline for the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards is looming on the horizon; September 16 is the deadline for Tony B. poster abstracts.

Striking Out on His Own

"Knowing what you want in life is key," says Honarnejad. "When you know that, you are automatically more receptive to the opportunities that collectively help you get where you want to be."

Honarnejad was raised in a science-driven family in Iran. "In fact I realized quite early that I would be pursuing science in my future career," he says, adding that when he was still in high school he came across a BBC documentary film about gene therapy that put the wheels in motion.

"I was amazed by the whole concept in the documentary, which sort of later shaped my future education and career path in the biomedical field," Honarnejad continues. He also credits moving to Germany after completing high school as opening the door to many opportunities. "In Europe I was exposed to cutting-edge science and technology, which in the long-term certainly contributed to my success."

A multidisciplinary focus in his education and personal interests has always supported Honarnejad's work. "To be successful in the field of biomolecular screening, one should have a broad knowledge in different areas of science and the ability to efficiently relate to those. You must utilize and bridge that knowledge while consistently improving the running operations," Honarnejad says. "I think one prerequisite for the latter is the flexibility to jump into new areas of science and explore every possibility that is around." He advises students to develop a long-term scope for their academic and career paths. "Students should not be intimidated by new experiences and challenges. I think growing in any aspect of life requires risk taking, which eventually pays off," he says.

When he's not tackling his research curiosity, Honarnejad seeks out time with family and friends to enrich his life. He particularly values different cultural and educational backgrounds. He also adds that there's nothing better for refreshing his creative thinking than to get out of the lab and into nature. "The Alps and the lakes in Bavaria really recharge my creative thinking," he notes.

Giving Back through Education

An unexpected aspect of Jacobs' scholastic career is that he spent two years teaching high school in Forney, TX, a town east of Dallas. After receiving a bachelor's degree in biology from UT Dallas in the spring of 2008, he spent a year taking classes and earning his teaching certificate in math and science.

"My time spent as a teaching assistant in college made me realize that my innate need to gain knowledge is almost equally matched by my fondness for helping distribute it," he explains. Jacobs taught chemistry, anatomy and physiology, as well as advanced placement biology.

"I used my time to inspire young people and show them how remarkable the science of life really is," he continues. "This experience not only proved to be very rewarding, but it also taught me essential life skills such as responsibility, leadership and how to be a proper role model for today's young people. I loved my time as a high school educator and strongly recommend it to anyone who has a passion for teaching...and a little patience as well."

"I was fortunate to have some great science teachers in high school," he explains. "My chemistry teacher, for instance, showed us how to find the fun in science while my anatomy teacher taught us the amazing intricacies of the human body. In that same span of time, my best friend's mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Seeing her in the hospital made me realize that I wanted to try and make some type of impact in the medical community. Upon completion of high school, I knew immediately that I would be dedicated to science for the rest of my life."

Because he found that his early education was not very difficult, Jacobs says he had success with relatively little effort. "When I began attending college, however, the courses became significantly harder. Learning how to really take time to study was unknown to me, and it required a great deal of work to which I was unaccustomed. After those first few semesters, though, I realized how great it felt to succeed at something through hard work and dedication."

Jacobs often told his high school students: "Never doubt yourself in pursuit of your future career goals. Don't make excuses. If you want something bad enough, you can do it."

When Jacobs hits a research roadblock or creative conundrum, he strikes back, literally, by heading to the driving range. "For some reason, there is something mentally therapeutic about hitting golf balls on a quiet range," he says.

A Transition in Science

"I always wanted to be a great engineer just like my dad, and that's why I picked chemical engineering as my major," explains Wu. "But I am also interested in the amazing things living organisms can do." Wu started her academic career with a degree in chemical engineering from Tianjin University, Tianjin, China, and decided to continue her journey at the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering at the University of New Mexico.

When a chance arose for Wu to collaborate with medical school staff and students, she took that opportunity without hesitating. "The collaboration turned out to be pretty successful and made me want to learn more about molecular and cell biology," she explains.

What she enjoys most about her research are the unexpected outcomes from live cell experiments. "It means that there is so much to learn about the complex yet neatly organized living machine of cells, tissues, organs, animals and human beings," Wu continues.

When not working out new ideas in the lab, Wu takes advantage of a wide selection of courses offered through Coursera, an education company that partners with top universities and organizations around the world to offer free, online classes. "These expand my knowledge or help strengthen my area of expertise," she says. "Although these courses might not be directly associated with my research, they often provide an angle to see things differently. It also helps to fill in the gaps between my engineering background and the biology needed in my research." She thanks SLAS member Larry Sklar, Ph.D., and her post-doc co-advisor Tione Buranda, Ph.D., who both helped and supported her idea to pursue a career in the biomedical engineering and drug discovery field, which led her to launch a research faculty position at UNM's Pathology and Center for Molecular Discovery.

In her remaining free time, Wu enjoys vigorous trips to the gym. "I work hard, work out harder, and make friends with my workout buddies from the university gym," she comments. Wu finds that talking with these friends from diverse backgrounds – both academic and ethical – yields interesting ideas. "And sometimes it may yield collaborations between departments," she adds.

Wu advises other students to keep this openness in their pursuit of science. "Follow your heart, keep your eyes, ears and mind open, work hard toward your goal and never give up. Always be ready for new challenges because they usually come with new opportunities. And finally, don't forget to share your scientific findings whenever you've got a great chance, especially at SLAS annual conferences!"

August 19, 2013