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SLAS2017 Student Poster Winners: Courageous Young Minds

Undaunted by international travel or speaking before world-class professionals, these forward-thinking student scientists share how the SLAS Student Poster Award boosts self-confidence, builds connections to potential collaborators and advances life sciences research.

Alice Bong, Sudip Mondal and Bilal Zulfiqar took top honors out of 60 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students who participated in the SLAS Student Poster Competition at SLAS2017. The annual competition gives next-generation scientists a chance to present innovative research and jump start their careers in life sciences discovery and technology

"Going to a multidisciplinary conference such as SLAS2017 to present my work helped me to get a perspective of where and how the work I do corresponds with the great research going on in my field,” says Bong, a doctoral candidate, who attends University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “It also was a huge boost in my confidence!”

Zulfiqar, a doctoral student at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, agrees. “The SLAS Student Poster Competition develops presentation skills, research collaborations and helps students present their research in a formal, supportive environment,” he comments. Zulfiqar also appreciated participating in a live podcast interview with The Lab Man (a.k.a. SLAS Director of Education Steve Hamilton), in which the honorees shared their work (now available at SLAS.org).  

For Mondal, the awards are “a great distinction that signifies recognition in the community. I was able to reach out to many experts from various backgrounds who have provided me with encouraging comments.” The postdoctoral researcher in mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) continues: “A few of them have been shaping up for potential future collaborations."

Mondal encourages the next generation of scientists to rely on versatility and logical thinking to solve tomorrow's scientific problems. “My advice for all those courageous young minds is to never give up and never fear failure,” he says. “I realize from my research training that when aspects of your work are harder to achieve and take away your peace of mind, they have potential for greater success.”

In addition to top honors, SLAS Student Poster Competition winners receive a $500 cash award and an invitation to submit their work for fast-track publication consideration in one of two SLAS internationally recognized scientific journalsSLAS Discovery (Advancing Life Sciences R&D) and SLAS Technology (Translating Life Sciences Innovation).

Mondal, Bong and Zulfiqar are among the 62 students, graduate students, post-doc researchers and junior faculty members who earned SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Awards, which allowed them to present their scientific achievements by providing conference registration, airfare and hotel accommodations at SLAS2017. SLAS travel award recipients also are invited to enroll in a short course for no additional cost.

Zulfiqar expressed gratitude for this financial support. “As a student with limited means, the award enabled me to receive feedback on my work from an international conference,” he says, adding that the travel award’s namesake, Tony Beugelsdijk, Ph.D., is a big inspiration. “He was an iconic leader in the field of life sciences discovery and technology who made an extraordinary impact on the SLAS community.”

Bong made use of every opportunity extended to students at SLAS2017. The travel award gave her the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time and at the conference, participation in a short course gave her new ideas to analyze data, while one-on-one mentoring sessions helped shape her thoughts about her research and her career.

“The mentor session was valuable for a junior scientist like me,” comments Bong, who felt that her insightful conversation with Scott Mosser, Merck director of pharmacology and assay operations team lead, better prepared her for the future. “It’s rare to be able to talk with various mentors with successful careers in academia and industry,” she says, adding that she would like to explore the intersection of these two areas and work in translational research.

From the Pharmacy to the Lab

Bong’s career launched at a grassroots level. Working for two years as a full-time community pharmacist in Brisbane, Australia, she interacted with a number of patients suffering from a variety of illnesses. The cancer patients particularly captured her attention. Some seemed to have responded to treatment and were in remission, while others with the same type of cancer deteriorated rapidly.

"I remember feeling helpless sometimes when talking to cancer patients who were told their treatment options were limited,” says Bong, whose 2011 bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Queensland led to the position. “This was a major factor influencing my return to the university to pursue a Ph.D. on breast cancer research."

Her doctoral research is based on a strong interest in the adaptive changes occurring in breast cancer cells as a result of chemotherapy. Passionate about research that ultimately improves patient outcomes, Bong hopes to identify new therapeutic opportunities to enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy in triple-negative breast cancers, a type of cancer linked to poor prognosis.

Now in the second year of her doctoral degree work, Bong’s understanding of the heterogeneous nature of cancer fueled her research project-turned-award-winning-poster, “Imaging Intracellular Calcium Dynamics in Breast Cancer using Automated High-Content Fluorescence Imaging.”

The poster explores the remodeling of intracellular calcium (Ca2+) signaling, which is associated with many tumorigenic phenotypes, including resistance to apoptosis and sustained proliferation. To overcome the limitations of standard screening approaches, Bong's research adapts conventional FLIPR-based Ca2+ imaging protocols to an automated epifluorescence microscope in a temperature-controlled chamber. This approach, while used by others to assess Ca2+ signaling in neuronal systems, hadn't been extensively evaluated in cancer cells. Bong uses the method to assess the effects of natural and chemotherapeutic anti-proliferative compounds on store-operated Ca2+ entry and ATP-induced Ca2+ responses.

Bong describes herself as having a late exposure to scientific research. “I grew up in Brunei, which has limited or virtually no life sciences research opportunities," she says. Self-motivated from an early age thanks to her parents, Bong set her own academic goals. The curious student didn't limit learning to what was taught from the school curriculum. "I also was fortunate to have inspiring teachers in high school, who knew how to push students to excel," she says.

Bong became aware of life sciences research opportunities during her undergraduate pharmacy studies when she entered an honors program in the lab of Gregory Monteith, Ph.D., who cultivated the fledgling researcher’s ambitions at this time. In fact, the experiences in his lab were so positive, it would eventually lead her back to pursue her Ph.D., this time working with him on a completely different project.

"He has been very supportive and encourages our independence and freedom in choosing our career paths,” says Bong, adding that transitioning back to basic science was a challenge at first. "I had been out of university for a few years and had to learn everything from scratch again. It was a giant leap and a steep learning curve,” she says. Talking with other Ph.D. students in the program who faced the same situation helped her manage her misgivings.

“The members of our Calcium Signaling in Cancer Research Laboratory are excellent scientists who have been very inspirational and supportive,” she says, adding that she learned about the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition from other members of her lab.  

Bong frequently finds benefits from talking with people from different backgrounds in the course of her daily work. “Talking to advisors or other scientists and gaining fresh perspectives can guide you when you feel like you are stuck in a rut,” she says. “It is important to persevere and have patience and faith that your hard work will pay off even if it may not seem that way sometimes!”

Another important aspect is to know when to step away from work, says Bong, who explores new parks on the weekends and spends evenings working out in the gym or nurturing her creativity in the kitchen. “When you have hobbies and interests outside of science, sometimes the most brilliant ideas will strike when you least expect it!”

Bong finds that her life has come full circle. "I still work as a pharmacist occasionally on weekends," she notes. "It is very helpful as it serves as a reminder of why I decided to pursue research in the first place."

Researching Solutions for Neglected Tropical Diseases

Another student researcher with a background in pharmaceutical sciences, Zulfiqar grew up in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. As a youngster, Zulfiqar’s fascination with scientific research and biotechnological innovations fueled his decision to pursue pharmaceutical sciences, with its blend of basic and applied sciences, even though no one in his family was involved in the profession.

In 2008, after receiving a doctoral degree with an academic distinction in pharmacy from Hamdard University in Islamabad, Zulfiqar worked as a registered pharmacist. His consuming interest in biological sciences, however, drew him back into academics. First he taught courses such as pharmaceutical biotechnology and pharmacology to undergraduates at Hamdard University, and then he earned a master’s degree in virology and immunology from the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad.

“During my masters’ research, while investigating the role of the Hepatitis C virus in inducing liver cirrhosis, I was introduced to drug discovery against microbes," Zulfiqar says, explaining that this sparked his interest in anti-leishmanial drug discovery.

Leishmaniasis is an infectious disease, caused by the trypanosomatid protozoan parasite, Leishmania. Leishmaniasis is endemic in 98 countries with more than 350 million people at risk of acquiring the disease. According to the clinical manifestations, the disease can be characterized as cutaneous, muco-cutaneous or visceral leishmaniasis; the latter being fatal. The therapeutic efficacy varies depending upon the disease pattern, species and geographical distribution of the parasite.

“Leishmaniasis is a major public health problem in my country, especially along the borders of neighboring Afghanistan and in cities that have had the maximum influx of refugees,” he says. His desire to pursue an anti-leishmanial research project led him read the published work of Vicky M. Avery, Ph.D., of the Discovery Biology Group at Griffith. He contacted her and soon moved to Australia to begin work on anti-trypanosomal drug discovery, focusing on the identification and biological characterization of novel pharmacologically active compounds against leishmaniasis.

“I was fortunate to be accepted to work with Professor Avery in anti-trypanosomal drug discovery,” Zulfiqar says. His work evolved into the research behind his award-winning poster, “High-Throughput Phenotypic Screening Reveals Novel Pharmacologically Active Compounds for Visceral Leishmaniasis.”

Current treatment regimens for leishmaniasis often have poor toxicity profiles and resistance has begun to emerge against the standard of care therapies. Finding an urgent necessity for new treatments, Zulfiqar used high-throughput screening (HTS) to identify chemical entities for potential drug development against Leishmania donovani DD8 parasites.

Zulfiqar performed a primary screen of 5,560 structurally diverse compounds using the promastigote viability assay (extracellular form) and an intracellular amastigote assay. He confirmed activity with cytotoxicity studies against THP-1 (host cells) and HEK-293 cell lines. The HTS approach used in Zulfiqar's research resulted in the discovery of two compounds that were active against both the old world and new world species causing visceral leishmaniasis. These hit compounds may provide urgently needed starting points for the development of novel lead series for future anti-leishmanial therapeutics.

When Zulfiqar began this research in Australia, he found it difficult to adapt to life in a new country. “Everything was totally new to me and I faced a lot of hardships adjusting to the new environment, culture, climate and a very different lifestyle,” he comments.

In spite of the culture shock, he reports that “my move has been a positive life-changing experience for me,” says Zulfiqar, who enjoys playing chess and soccer, traveling, backpacking, camping and trying new restaurants in what spare time he can find. “Never be afraid to take on new challenges in your career,” he recommends. “I advise all young scientists to cultivate their scientific curiosity, take pride in doing things well and nurture their ambitions.”

Remodeled Thinking

The height of research excitement and the low of personal tragedy spur Sudip Mondal’s work. During the process of discovering new technology to research disease, he learned that both his parents had been diagnosed with cancer. The loss of his father to the disease only increased his urgency to explore the field of medical sciences, human health and disease.

“I have been fortunate to be in an environment with constantly growing science where you explore new frontiers to understand biology and develop next-generation tools," Mondal says. Under the guidance of mentors and colleagues at UT Austin, Mondal reports that he has achieved new heights of success in his career path and appreciates an opportunity to contribute to current progress in life sciences and technology. His goal is to develop new technology for next-generation drug screening using whole organisms.

“We hope such technology will allow researchers to develop more relevant disease models and identify new drug leads that can help us to find novel therapeutics for various human diseases," Mondal says.

His award-winning poster, “Next Generation Screening Technology for High-Throughput Drug Screening Using C. elegans Disease Models,” captures these efforts. In his research, Mondal developed an automated microfluidic platform to enable both high-throughput and high-resolution imaging of Caenorhabitis elegans (C. elegans) as a disease model. Small animal models such as C. elegans offer many benefits for next-generation drug screening using in vivo studies.

The resulting robust platform can immobilize adult C. elegans in 3,840 traps within five minutes and image the whole population in 16 minutes, the same speed and cost as in vitro cell-based assays. After testing the efficacy of approximately 1,000 Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs in improving the aggregation phenotype of the polyglutamine-induced aggregation model, Mondal’s team identified four confirmed hits, one of which had a strong dose-response.

This work is far removed from the remote village in India where Mondal was born. "I was fortunate to quickly move from there with my family to a city where I could get a better education while my father was working in Indian defense," he says.

During high school, where Mondal cultivated interests in languages, social studies and science, one of his teachers introduced him to advanced mathematics. "This remodeled my logical thinking and introduced me to the beautiful world of numbers," he says. The discipline gave him a new perspective on other subjects, particularly problem-solving in physics and statistics, and prepared his journey into quantitative science.

This journey included pursuing an integrated Ph.D. in physics from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. While there he experienced great freedom in his research and explored several science and engineering cohorts, including semiconductor physics, building electronics, microfabrication, portable instrumentation and DNA-based sensor design.

"My training taught me about free-thinking without boundaries, allowed me hands-on experimentation and taught me how to apply theoretical knowledge to build new tools," Mondal explains. During this time, he constructed a new, portable technology for a handheld polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to be used for DNA-based diagnostic applications.

"A small but significant portion of this work required me to interact with biologists on campus, which eventually inspired me to seek work in a genetics lab for my first venture into postdoctoral research," says Mondal, who completed his Ph.D. in 2008 and joined the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bangalore, where he began his postdoctoral research on C. elegans neurobiology.

Collaborative work is essential to Mondal. He relishes discussions of science and learning more about other scientist’s typical, everyday laboratory experiences. He also wants to know about health-related topics from his colleagues. "All these factors motivate me to push the limit, bring positivity, keep myself rolling and maintain high hope that I will be able to contribute to the grand challenges of human health," he explains.

Students: Application Deadlines for SLAS2018 Tony B. Academic Awards Program

Students interested in applying for the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards Program for SLAS2018, should apply by: Monday, August 7, 2017 (deadline for podium and poster presentations), or Monday, October 30, 2017 (poster presentations only).

May 8, 2017