Competition breaks research down into bite-sized chunks

Science is usually a serious matter, but there were plenty of laughs last week at the fourth annual Science Bites event held at WSU Spokane. The science communications competition featured ten graduate and professional students from the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, who rose to the challenge of providing a compelling description of their research in no more than three minutes.

Participants could use one static PowerPoint slide and were expected to use language that could be understood by non-specialists. Facing a panel of judges, they pulled out all the stops, using a variety of laugh-inducing metaphors and anecdotes in their quest for top honors.

Prizes—including $200 toward travel expenses to attend the Science Talk ’19 conference in Portland—went to the top three competitors, all of whom are PhD in pharmaceutical sciences candidates working in different research labs.

Group photo of the 2018 ScienceBites competitors and judges

Science Bites competitors and judges at the 2018 event. From left to right, in the back: Dyston Madsen, Panshak Dakup, Trevor Kirby, Philip Wibisono, Soumyadeep Sarkar, Siavosh Naji-Talakar, and Chancellor Daryll DeWald. Center: Shannon Kozlovich, Priyanka Bushana. Front: Xinyue Dong, Laken Kruger, Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, Shamema Nasrin, and Shirley Moore.

Portrait photo of Soumyadeep (Sam) SarkarThe first prize went to Soumyadeep (Sam) Sarkar, who talked about his research on the circadian clock—the 24-hour day-night cycle that regulates different processes in our bodies. Disruption of the circadian clock due to erratic sleep patterns and eating habits have been strongly correlated to different types of ailments, including skin cancer. His dissertation specifically looks at circadian regulation of melanin synthesis, a protective mechanism that produces melanin pigment in skin in response to UV radiation.

During his talk, Sarkar compared the sun and its UV radiation to “grandparents giving us too much love that we can’t handle” and the ozone layer to “parents who filter out the excess love and protect us from being stinky spoilt.” He went on to describe the hypothesis behind his dissertation as an epic tale that involved two noble knights (DNA repair and melanin) who protect the royals (DNA) from the angry sun and its UV radiation. The circadian clock, he said, is like the good army general who directs the soldiers (or knights) to win against solar radiation.

Portrait photo of Xinyue (Sheena) DongSecond place and audience favorite honors went to Xinyue (Sheena) Dong. She turned her research on the use of a type of white blood cells known as neutrophils to transport drug molecules across the blood-brain barrier into a cross-border, feel-good crime story.

Dong likened the blood-brain barrier to the border patrol, which stops illegal immigrants from crossing the border. Since drugs to treat brain tumors are viewed as illegal immigrants, she said her research uses legal immigrants (neutrophils) that can smuggle those “illegal” drug molecules past the blood-brain barrier to where they are needed to fight disease.

Portrait photo of Shannon KozlovichShannon Kozlovich came in third with her talk on how menthol in cigarettes affects cancer risk in smokers. She mentioned the surprising fact that nearly all cigarettes—including those not labeled as menthol cigarettes—have menthol in them. She said it is being added to numb smokers’ airways to ease the irritation that comes with smoke inhalation.

In her research, she has examined levels of menthol in the urine of smokers of menthol and non-menthol cigarettes. She has also studied how menthol levels affect how the body metabolizes the cancer-causing substances in tobacco.

Science Bites is sponsored by the Graduate Research Student Association (GRSA). The competition is modeled after the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition held annually at WSU Pullman and elsewhere.

GRSA president Yadira Pérez-Páramo, who emceed the Spokane event, said that Science Bites winners have twice won the WSU 3MT competition, which is held as part of Showcase each spring. This brings high hopes for Sarkar’s performance at the fifth annual university-level 3MT event in late March.

Science Bites judges included WSU Spokane Chancellor Daryll DeWald; Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, associate dean for research in the College of Nursing; Dyston Madsen, a physical therapist trained at EWU and a member of the local Toastmasters Club; and Shirley Moore, a professor of nursing at the Case Western Reserve University School of Nursing. PhD candidate Panshak Dakup—who won both Science Bites 2016 and the 2017 WSU 3MT competition—was also on hand to provide participant feedback.