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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

March 2018

Fellows compete in third annual Big Picture, Small Talk challenge

Eleven postdocs took part in the third annual plain language competition Feb. 21, with three named as winners.

Eleven postdoctoral NIEHS fellows took part in the third annual “Big Picture, Small Talk” competition Feb. 21 in Rodbell Auditorium, hosted by the Office of Fellows' Career Development (OFCD).

“The challenge was to explain in three minutes what their research entails, its broader impact, and what they gained from their experience at NIEHS,” said OFCD Director Tammy Collins, Ph.D., who was the event’s principal organizer.

And the winners are...

Three winners were chosen by a panel of judges composed of mostly nonscientists. Each will receive a $1,000 travel award from OFCD.

  • Dhirendra Kumar, Ph.D., a fellow in the Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory’s (ESCBL) Systems Biology Group.
  • Lee Langer, Ph.D., a fellow in the ESCBL Chromatin and Gene Expression Group.    
  • Sreenivasa Ramaiahgari, Ph.D., a fellow in the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) Molecular Toxicology and Genomics Group.
Winners Kumar, Langer, and Ramaiahgari Winners Kumar, Langer, and Ramaiahgari. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

This is the second win in a row for Langer. In 2017, he competed with Ramaiahgari and another 2018 participant, Priya Halvorsen, Ph.D., who was also among last year’s winners.

“It’s great to win, but it’s more about the opportunity,” said Langer. “You can never have too many chances to practice public speaking and become good at it.”

Kumar agreed, saying he entered the competition because he hoped the challenge would help him improve his communication skills. “I also want to thank my mentor, Raja Jothi [Ph.D.],” Kumar added.

Making the complex simple

Gary Bird “Plain language is an important skill for reaching out to our non-scientific community,” said event co-organizer Gary Bird, Ph.D., seen here keeping track of time. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Coming from different groups within ESCBL, both Langer and Kumar spoke about their work on how stem cells decide to stop reproducing and become other types of cells.

Langer began his research project by generating cells with lower than normal amounts of certain proteins. He found that cells deficient in the protein Bap 47 are unable to turn off the process of stem cell formation to become brain cells.

Kumar described gene modification as being like stepping on a gas pedal or using the brakes. “My research found that only the repression, or braking, marker, not the activation marker, is required for proper development,” Kumar said.

Ramaiahgari described 3D models of various human cells that he developed for use in studying how cells respond to toxic chemicals.

“We were able to identify toxic chemicals that couldn’t be identified using old culture models,” said Ramaiahgari. “Now we can understand how our bodies will respond to toxic chemicals without using animals.”

OFCD goals

Better communication skills are one of the four core competencies encouraged by the OFCD.

“When someone asks, ‘What type of research do you work on?’, how you answer will depend on who asks,” said Collins. “It is important for scientists to learn how to communicate in plain language.”

Priya Halvorsen Halvorsen, a 2017 winner, described her work on how exposures in early life affect the later development of asthma. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


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