Shen Lab Produces Two Research-Pitching Winners

The clock is ticking and you have just a few minutes to explain your very complicated research.

That was the assignment that graduates students faced in two recent competitions aiming to help young scientists learn how to accurately portray their research in a kind of elevator pitch that drives home an important message about their work and its potential.

The 7th Annual USC Graduate Research Symposium, requiring students to use one slide to tell the story of their work in five minutes, was held on the Health Sciences Campus on April 2. The next day, the School of Pharmacy’s 3-Minute Thesis competition charged participants with presenting their work without using any visuals. Winners for both contests are PhD students in the lab of Professor Wei-Chiang Shen, the John A. Biles Professor in Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Taking first place in the campus-wide Graduate Research Symposium was Juntang Shao, a fourth-year graduate student in the Shen lab. Shao’s sole slide showed how proinsulin-transferrin has the potential to provide the prolonged therapeutic effect of insulin without the side effects. Her novel approach aims to reduce hypoglycemia in patients by treating the liver as a kind of test tube, using its endogenous enzymes to convert the drug into an active state. Targeting the drug to the liver minimizes the side effects of hypoglycemia which commonly include headache and sleepiness and can even lead to coma and death.

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Juntang Shao, Professor Wei-Chiang Shen, Zoe Folchman-Wagner, and Assistant Professor Jennica Zaro

“We’re exploring the machinery of why the insulin has prolonged action and why the liver activates the drug,” said Shao. “Ultimately, this approach presents longer duration and safer insulin action – a great promise for type 1 diabetes treatment.”

Shao’s presentation earned her a $1,000 prize at the competition. Her lab colleague, Zoe Folchman-Wagner, took the top prize in the inaugural 3-Minute Thesis Competition sponsored by the Research & Graduate Affairs Office at the School of Pharmacy. Folchman-Wagner, a third-year PhD student, presented the promise of her work to target tumors while lessening side effects by bypassing healthy cells.

“Cancer therapies can be as bad or worse than the disease itself,” she said after relating the story of a family friend who died of colon cancer after foregoing a final round of chemotherapy. “We can do better than this.”

Folchman-Wagner is studying a nanoparticle approach that encapsulates cancer-fighting drugs and only activates them at the tumor site. This is accomplished by sensitizing the drug to the tumor microenvironment which is slightly more acidic than the normal environment. Since the drug is not released until it is within the tumor cell, surrounding healthy tissue is spared the typical chemotherapy side effects.

“The change in acidity is very slight so it has never been fully exploited as a tool for targeted drug delivery,” said Folchman-Wagner. “My project is working to overcome this barrier.”

Along with Dr. Shen, the two winners are also mentored by School of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Jennica Zaro. Shao also received second place in the 3-Minute Thesis Competition, tying with Jordana Jayne who is mentored by Professor Paul Beringer. Third place winners were Isaac Asante, mentored by Associate Professor Stan Louie, and Christine Solinsky who is studying in the lab of Professor Roberta Diaz Brinton.

The School of Pharmacy provided students with a pitch workshop as preparation for explaining research when vying for funding and ultimately when applying for jobs. The workshop was led by professional presentation coach Barbara Giordano.

When asked what she’ll do with her cash winnings, Shao said, “I’ll have to think about that.” But when asked what her ultimate aspiration is, without a beat, she replied, “I want to be a scientist like Dr. Shen.”