Standout students present to a room full of scientists at annual research retreat


At first glance, it might seem like an auditorium full of scientists would have more in common than not. Yet it’s the difference between the many types of faculty and student researchers at UMass Medical School that was foremost in the minds of the four Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences students who were selected to present their research at this year’s 15th Annual Research Retreat at Woods Hole.

“It’s different than presenting at a conference with a room full of neurobiologists,” said Michelle Avery, a sixth-year graduate student in the lab of Marc R. Freeman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology. Avery’s research examines a genetic mutation found in animal models that may protect human neurons from dying. “You can’t assume that everybody is intimately familiar with the working of the nervous system, and that changes how you present the research.”

“One of the challenges,” said John Evans III, a sixth-year graduate student in the lab of Leslie J. Berg, PhD, professor of pathology, “is that you have to provide enough background so that everybody in the audience, students and faculty, can follow along. That means spending a little more time presenting a framework for the research.” Evans presented his research on the workings of innate immune response cells—called mast cells—to an audience of 150 faculty, students and staff on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Each year, four students are honored with an opportunity to present their scientific research to fellow students and faculty at the retreat. Nominated by their respective GSBS faculty members and brought forward to the selection committee by each program, the four speakers were chosen on the basis of their scientific work and excellence as a speaker. Speakers present a short (15 to 20 minutes) talk to the audience and then take questions from the floor.

From the 11 GSBS programs, 14 worthy candidates emerged. Selection of the speakers was made by Dean Anthony Carruthers, PhD, professor of biochemistry & molecular pharmacology and physiology, as well as the GSBS associate deans. “All candidates were excellent and truly showcased their lab’s research and their program’s approach to biomedical sciences,” said Dr. Carruthers. “In the end, we could select only four speakers.”

To second-year student Jessica Crisci, who presented research on the Neanderthal genome based on her work in the lab of Jeffrey Jensen, PhD, assistant professor of bioinformatics & integrative biology and molecular medicine, the honor was unexpected. “It was a bit of a shock,” she said. “This was my first presentation to an audience this large and it was quite an honor.” Crisci’s work shows genes that are being postively selected through evaluation in humans, Neantherthal and other primates.

For Jennifer Griffin, a sixth-year student in the lab of Christopher M. Sassetti, PhD, assistant professor of molecular genetics & microbiology, her talk caps an academic career that began at UMass Amherst and included two summers as an undergraduate research fellow at the Medical School. Her work focuses on the genes responsible for injesting and metabolising cholesterol in tuberculosis. “I enjoy talking about the research we’re doing because it feels like we’re having an impact on the greater world.”

“These four students were truly impressive. Their talks were among the best we have had in 15 years,” said Carruthers. “This is a true honor for the students who were selected to present at the retreat. It was an opportunity to show colleagues the progress they have made in their project and in their personal scientific development, and at the same time refine presentation and debate skills. We are delighted by the response of our faculty to nominate their students and by the remarkable research that our students are undertaking.”

2010 Student speakers:

  • Jessica Crisci
    Principal Investigator: Jeffrey Jensen, PhD, assistant professor of bionformatics & integrative biology and molecular medicine
    GSBS program: Bioinformatics & Computational Biology
    “Neanderthal genomics: shedding light on human adaptation”
  • Michelle Avery
    Principal Investigator: Marc R. Freeman, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology
    GSBS program: Neuroscience
    “Saving an axon from degeneration: the story of Wlds”
  • John Evans III
    Principal Investigator: Leslie J. Berg, PhD, professor of pathology
    GSBS program: Immunology & Virology
    “A novel role for Itk as a negative regulator in mast cell activation”
  • Jennifer Griffin
    Principal Investigator: Christopher M. Sassetti, PhD, assistant professor of molecular genetics & microbiology
    GSBS program: Molecular Genetics & Microbiology
    “Throwing out the TraSH; MTb metabolism Illuminated”

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