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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

December 2022

Scholars shine with three-minute talks

At the first in-person NIEHS Scholars Connect Program event since 2019, students competed with elevator pitch-style talks.

On Nov. 18, ten undergraduates in the NIEHS Scholars Connect Program (NSCP) presented their research at the annual NSCP Fall Connection event. Each participant gave a three-minute, elevator pitch-style talk about work in progress.

Participants and attendees listened closely to Scholars’ presentations Participants and attendees listened closely to Scholars’ presentations. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

According to NSCP coordinator Suchandra Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., all the speakers rose to the occasion and communicated their research effectively. 

“NSCP aims to enhance Scholars’ research communication skills, and these presentations are part of our efforts to help them effectively explain their work to the broader NIEHS community,” said Bhattacharjee, undergraduate research program manager in the Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED).

Impressive speakers

In a tie, Kyra Varley and Thusna Gardiyehewa won for Best Presentation. Varley is majoring in social determinants of health and inequality at Duke University. Gardiyehewa is pursuing a degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at North Carolina State University (NC State).

Kyra Varley Varley, who is studying the roots of housing discrimination and environmental health, said, “If you want to create world-changing impacts, you have to live in those messy roots.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

Shivani Ayyagari, who is studying bioengineering and biomedical engineering at NC State, earned an Honorable Mention award. 

The competition was judged by four representatives from NIEHS: Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of the Office of Science Education & Diversity; Kelly Miller, NIEHS Library; Negin Martin, Ph.D., director of Viral Vector Core; and Kevin Gerrish, Ph.D., director of the Molecular Genomics Core Laboratory.

Thusna Gardiyehewa Gardiyehewa noted that ozone exposure causes inflammation and injury to the bronchial cells lining the airways of the lung. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

The research

In her presentation, Varley described how she conducted a literature review summarizing previous research on the effects of climate change on pregnant women’s health and on environmental health. Her research mentor was Melissa Smarr, Ph.D., and her research principal investigator (P.I.) was Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., both from the Population Health Branch.

Gardiyehewa detailed her inquiry into hyaluronan, a type of carbohydrate found in the matrix outside of cells, particularly in soft connective tissues. She explained how this molecule affects cells injured by ozone in a region of the lung that acts as a defensive barrier for normal airway function. She works with mentor Vandy Parron, Ph.D., and P.I. Stavros Garantziotis, Ph.D., from the Matrix Biology Group. (In a tie with Ayyagari, Gardiyehewa also won the NSCP Summer Connection poster presentation. Read more in this September 2022 Environmental Factor article.)

In her talk, Ayyagari described how she is exploring the relationship between per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (also known as PFAS) and lactation in breast cells. Vesna Chappell, Ph.D., and Sue Fenton, Ph.D., both from the Mechanistic Toxicology Branch, were Ayyagari’s mentor and P.I., respectively.

Shivani Ayyagari “Can you imagine not being able to breastfeed your baby because of PFAS in your drinking water?” asked Ayyagari, who is working to determine which lactation pathways are most affected by such chemicals. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

Connecting with confidence

“The elevator pitch prepares students for graduate or medical school interviews, job interviews, formal networking, casual conversation, and maybe even an elevator ride,” said Bhattacharjee.

This is the sixth year for the elevator pitch competition, which is one of three opportunities for the Scholars to present their research.

In the upcoming Spring symposium, which is like a scientific conference, Scholars present an oral presentation of their completed projects.

Assembling since 2012

NSCP was launched in 2012 to encourage students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in science — especially environmental health sciences, technology, engineering, and math. In 2017, the Elevator Pitch presentation kicked off.

This year’s NSCP interns include five students from NC State, three from Duke University, and one each from North Carolina AT&T University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and St. Augustine’s University.

Additional Fall Connection speakers included Charles Coleman, Ameena Hester (a returning scholar), Dongwon Lee, Skylar Montague, Sahana Ramamurthy, Briany Santos-Villalobos, and Joevensky Seme. Returning scholar Ariana Frazier was unable to attend.

NIEHS Scholars

Scholars posed for a photo with Bhattacharjee, far left; OSED Staff Assistant Treva Buncha, second from left; and Reid, far right, after the event. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw / NIEHS)

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

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