Today I am feeling quite proud of myself. I won my first prize in my science career! Although it was nothing official I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
So, as many of you know by now I’m doing my PhD at the moment in stem cell biology. It is a four year PhD program and one day every year, all the students on the program from every year meet up and present their work. As a second year PhD student, it was our turn to do the ‘Three Minute Thesis Challenge’. This competition seems to be a trend sweeping across the globe at the moment where PhD students try to explain their entire thesis in under 3 minutes using a static slide.
The thought of this initially terrified me! But I sat down and brainstormed and eventually worked out the best analogy to describe what I’m doing everyday. So, I know when I’m at home lots of my family and friends ask me what I get up to in the lab, so I thought it might be good to share with them and everyone else out there who is interested what the answer to that question is and hopefully help get a better understanding of what I do. So, I’ve added my three minute thesis and a slightly extended version of the script!
We live in a world where there is a lack of organ donors, blood banks are at an all-time low and there are hundreds-of-thousands of diseases that we need to know how to treat. Do you realise there is one answer to all our problems?
Human embryonic stem cells. Are they ‘The Perfect Medicine’?
You’ve probably heard about stem cells in the news and may wonder what the hype is about. Stem cells are the body’s master cells. They keep reproducing themselves and generate different cell types. They come as either embryonic or adult stem cells – the main difference is the number of cell types they can make. While adult stem cells can only become a limited number of cell types, embryonic stem cells are incredibly special. They can make any cell type in your entire body. Think of them as the blank tiles you can get in Scrabble; they can be any letter in the alphabet. Because of this, we call them pluripotent.
Let me introduce you to my ‘Stem Cell Hotel’. Inside is a lift to every floor. As you get higher, you see more of the city, which equates to the number of cell types a stem cell can become. Our pluripotent stem cells can become every cell type in your body, so they stay in the penthouse at the top and can see across the entire city.
The main problem with embryonic stem cell research is that the cells starting turning into other cell types in culture. So, they leave the penthouse and go to lower floors to get a better view of specific landmarks rather than the entire city.
My research focuses on keeping embryonic stem cells as stem cells. Keeping them pluripotent and keeping them in the penthouse.
How? Well, the penthouse is on top of a snowy mountain at high altitude, where there is less oxygen. Embryonic stem cells stay inside when oxygen is low, keeping them in the penthouse, and keeping them pluripotent in the lab. At higher oxygen like on the lower floors, they start turning into other cell types. When my stem cells are stuck inside, they raid the minibar and consume lots of sugar really quickly for energy. This is a trend we see in the lab too – embryonic stem cells kept at lower oxygen consume sugar, or glucose, much quicker.
So, I am interested in how the amounts of oxygen and glucose maintain stem cell pluripotency, keeps them in their penthouse, by looking at how key proteins called C-terminal binding proteins, play the part of the ‘bartender’, who restock the minibar and control the amount of glucose the stem cells get.
So, what’s the big picture? How may it benefit you?
- We could genetically modify my cells to cause Alzheimer’s, heart disease or diabetes, identify what’s broken and test new drugs to try and fix the problem
- My stem cells could generate any tissue type for study, drug testing or even therapies. For example, some labs are working on replacement skin to treat burns, others are growing pancreatic cells to treat diabetes.
- We could even make entire organs specific to particular patients, ending the need for an organ donor register
- Giving blood could be a thing of the past, as we can generate an unlimited supply of that too
There is enormous hope for embryonic stem cells in future medicine. They could help with so much; from blindness, to blood cancers, to paralysis. So, yes, I believe human embryonic stem cells are ‘The Perfect Medicine!
So, after finishing this today, I sat back in my chair and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was so glad to have done this challenge as it made me look at my research with a completely different perspective and be able to explain it to the general public, BUT I was so glad when it was over. But after watching all my fellow second years, I was even more shocked when they announced that I had won! And more so when a few people told me I should enter the University wide competition! So, I feel I have accomplished something today, and it’s renewed by love for scicomm!
Now, I’m no expert, but if anyone happens to be entering this competition I have a few tips that I would say helped me!
Watch Youtube – with this being a global trend at the moment, there is a heap of videos from universities around the world of their 3MT competitions. I recommend watching as many of them as you can and watch some more to get a feel for the style, their presenting style and the language they use.
Create an analogy – the best way to describe what I did was to find that perfect analogy. Now it took a while for me to come up with and I’ve thrown some crazy ideas away, but once it clicked I could fit everything in from my oxygen, glucose and C-terminal binding proteins. So I am grateful for my Stem Cell Hotel 😛
Don’t feel like your patronising people – I was presenting this in front of a room of people who were all more experienced and more intelligent than me so I felt that even describing the basic things were just going to patronise people, but I realise now that’s the best way to keep the audience engaged, and maybe even get some laughs 😛
And finally, just enjoy it!