Congratulations to our 2021 Grad Slam Winners!
2021 Gradslam Winners
Leslie Heid (Grad Slam Champion)
Mathematical, Computational & Systems Biology
If every cell contains the exact same blueprints, why do they all act differently? Why don't the cells of the stomach wall look and act the same as the skin cells on the bottom of your feet? The answer is epigenetics and DNA methylation. As an embryo grows, it reaches a point where the cells realize they need to differentiate, to become a heart, a nervous system, a skeleton. Methyl groups are attached at various points along the DNA strand, where they either prevent or promote the expression of specific genes. Pseudotime is the process of determining the age of a cell based on its place in a biological process. No one has done this based on methylation signatures, yet. If we can identify nascent, half-methylated strands of DNA through methylation pseudotime, pinpointing the moment when a cell is most susceptible to making fate changes, it may be possible to change the cell fate transition by rewriting a cell's methylation signature. We could then redirect the cells to perform new or different tasks. One day, we might even be able to grow a replacement liver or lung from just a few cells swabbed from a patient's inner cheek.
Leslie, who grew up in Pennsylvania, moved to California to pursue higher education and in 2020 achieved a BA in Applied Mathematics with a focus on Physics from CSU Fullerton. Having now entered her PhD graduate phase, Leslie is looking forward to working on a wide range of lab projects through MCSB; already she has developed an equation for determining psuedotime in DNA methylation and is now playing with really cool lasers in the Barty Lab. She is currently employed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, modeling mission communications needs for the Deep Space Network. Leslie’s favorite number is 41 and her favorite people in the world are her husband and adorable four-year-old daughter.
Jessica Vidmark (2nd Place Winner)
When traditional medications for children with movement disorders aren’t effective, a method called deep brain stimulation (DBS) can help by targeting the source of the symptoms. DBS is a clinical treatment that sends electrical pulses into deep brain regions through implanted electrodes, “blocking” unhealthy brain activity – when accurate stimulation settings are used. However, although DBS has been used for decades, its mechanisms are still not well understood, making it difficult to determine these ideal stimulation settings for each patient. Hence, I use DBS electrodes as a tool to track the brain’s response to stimulations, called evoked potentials (EPs). The existence of an EP infers that there is a neural connection between the stimulated and recording regions; its delay helps us understand the pathway of the neural propagation; and its amplitude reflects the magnitude of the neural response, inferring e.g. which stimulation settings or locations this pathway is the most susceptible to. Studying the brain in this manner helps us understand the connectivity of the brain, as well as deep brain stimulation itself, which in turn will allow us to provide ideal treatments.
Jessica Vidmark is a 3rd year Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. student in the Sanger Lab. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology with summa cum laude honors and the Faculty Honors Award, and graduated from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden with a Master’s degree in Medical Engineering. Jessica is investigating neural connectivity in deep brain regions, with the goal to provide the most effective treatment possible for children with movement disorders.
Hamsi Radhakrishnan (3rd Place Winner)
Neurobiology and Behavior/Mathematical Computational and Systems Biology, PhD
We know that the human brain has hundreds of billions of cells. The way these cells are organized in relation to each other define almost everything about what it means to be human. The size and number of these cells change with age, disease and even just individual differences, making being able to count them incredibly valuable. However, doing so- in a live human- is not trivial at all (especially if said human wants to keep their brain inside their head). Traditional MR Imaging has been really useful in helping us peek into the brain and study its various structural properties; however, the level of detail this kind of imaging allows is nowhere near adequate for us to be able parse out individual cells. My research uses a special kind of MRI, called diffusion weighted imaging, which tracks the movement of water molecules in the brain. Since the number, shape, and size of different cells in the brain influence the flow of water, this technique may have the potential to be able to estimate the population of different types of cells in different parts of the brain- an endeavor that has immense clinical and translational potential.
Hamsi (hum-see) Radhakrishnan is a PhD Candidate in Dr. Craig Stark’s Lab in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. She uses MRI to understand how the structural properties of the brain change with age, disease, and cognitive differences. She also serves as the co-chair for the K-12 Ambassador Committee in the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, where they host events to get children excited about science! When not doing science and outreach, she enjoys poetry, cooking, board games, and watching especially terrible romantic comedies (the cheesier the better, obviously).