Three Minute Thesis: Get to Know Winners Chad Hicks and Benjamin Zaepfel

Congratulations to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Three Minute Thesis Winners Chad Hicks and Benjamin Zaepfel!

Chad and Ben, both PhD students from the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) graduate program, placed first and third, respectively. This is the third year that the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) Ph.D. Program has swept the Three Minute Thesis (3MT). 3MT is an international research and scholarly communication competition in which doctoral students have three minutes – and a single PowerPoint slide – to present compelling and engaging talks on their dissertation topic and its significance. Thesis’ are presented in a condensed format, in terms that a non-expert can understand.

On March 25th, ten Hopkins doctoral students presented their 3MT talks to an esteemed panel of judges, including Dr. Gregg Semenza (SOM Professor and 2019 Nobel Laureate) and Eduardo Martinez-Montes (2019 3MT Champion and SOM PhD candidate). There were 28 total competitors from JHU SOM, SPH, SOE, and KSAS, with 10 finalists. Videos of these presentations can be found here.

Can you tell us a little more about your presentation?

Chad: The title of my 3MT presentation was "How Bookmarks Help Cells Pass Their Leukemia Test." The title of my thesis is "Regulation and recognition of H3K79me." I study a post-translational modification on histone H3K79 of nucleosomes that is important for transcription activation and leukemic development. The protein responsible for attaching this methyl post-translational modification to H3K79 is Dot1L. The goal of my project is to determine the 3-dimensional structure of Dot1L and its associated partner proteins on the nucleosome to find new drug targets for treating certain-types of Leukemia. The other aspect of my thesis seeks to identify the reader proteins that recognize the H3K79me modification to regulate transcription and initiate leukemic development. However, my 3MT presentation didn't touch on this reader protein portion of my thesis project.

Benjamin: My talk was called "Sandwiches out of Sand," but the title of my thesis is "Investigating NMD in MND: Understanding functional changes in RNA biology in Motor Neuron Disease." My project is an investigation of nonsense mediated decay (NMD) function in the context of Motor Neuron Disease (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease or ALS). NMD is a "spell-check" function that allows cells to recognize a certain class of typo in mRNA. My work has shown that while NMD is not functioning differently in diseased neurons, increasing the abundance of the main "spell check" protein helps keeps these diseased neurons alive.

How did it feel win and how do you think your experience in the School of Medicine has prepared you for this?

Chad: It is quite exhilarating. There are so many talented communicators at Hopkins. It is a huge honor to even just reach the finals. I feel very grateful to my mentors in undergraduate and graduate school that taught me effective science communication strategies. The SOM, BCMB program, and Wolberger Lab really emphasizes the importance of effective science communication. I've had many opportunities to present my work and learn effective science communication skills from the best. This was actually one of my highest criteria for selecting a graduate school and lab to join. The BCMB Program and Wolberger Lab have been exceptionally helpful in providing feedback and training opportunities for science communication.

Benjamin: It feels nice to win, but it's even more important that I was (apparently) able to communicate in terms that the entire audience could follow. Given the separation of the scientific process from the general public, it's important to communicate the process of discovery itself, rather than the typical "final product" of a manuscript or drug. The School of Medicine (specifically the BCMB program) has provided a lot of training in communication skills. The program also provides the opportunity to present our thesis work to a variety of audiences, which definitely helps me feel comfortable speaking to the public.

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