In the mountains of Idaho, decades ago, one-eyed sheep were being born. On Thursday evening, UC San Francisco postdoc Ishan Deshpande, PhD, explained how this strange phenomenon has opened a unique path toward better cancer treatments.
“It turns out that the sheep were eating flowers loaded with a dangerous chemical called cyclopamine,” said Deshpande in his talk, “From One-Eyed Sheep to Anti-Cancer Drugs,” which earned him first prize in this year’s Postdoc Slam competition. The aptly-named chemical affects the activity of a protein called smoothened, “a fascinating molecular machine present in all animals,” said Desphande. The protein is normally active during fetal development, making sure the animal’s body has the right architecture, but when activated in an adult, smoothened can cause cells to divide inappropriately – and lead to cancer – Deshpande explained to the packed house in Genentech Hall’s Byers auditorium.
Deshpande was one of 10 finalists competing live, winnowed from an initial field of 24 submissions. Now in its fourth year, Postdoc Slam is organized and hosted by the Office for Postdoctoral Scholars, part of the UCSF Graduate Division. This year’s topics ranged from cancer to the immune system to the potential for performing surgery in space. Each participant had risen to meet a formidable challenge: Present your research, no matter how complicated, in a way a non-specialist can understand. And do it in three minutes or less.
In his research, Deshpande has discovered the “activation epicenter” for the protein, and learned that it becomes activated by cholesterol. “Current drugs on the market, developed without this knowledge, block this activation epicenter, but only partially,” he said. “Essentially, we’re hitting at a piñata, but blindfolded.” Understanding the protein’s activity, he said, will allow researchers to design smarter drugs that can precisely target that piñata.
Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, dean of the Graduate Division and vice chancellor of Student Academic Affairs, kicked the evening off by welcoming the audience to “the closest thing UCSF has to a football game.” She said that the Postdoc Slam is important in giving people a glimpse into the work that UCSF’s 1,000-plus postdocs are doing. “It also incentivizes postdocs to fine-tune their communication skills and in turn become powerful advocates for science and research that benefits all of us,” she said.
Among those attending was pharmacogenomics PhD candidate Dina Buitrago Silva, who said postdocs are “incredible mentors” for her. “To see them go straight deep into their science and how much they’re passionate about it is really interesting,” she said.
A panel of judges assessed presenters on how well they organized their ideas, communicated their topics, and engaged the audience's curiosity. Judge Sara Kenkare-Mitra, PhD, the senior vice president of development sciences at Genentech and a former UCSF postdoc herself, said, “Postdocs are in that stage before you go into industry or academia. I think it is great to recognize them and demonstrate why it’s important to continue education beyond the PhD level.”
Kenkare-Mitra and other judges also emphasized that scientists today must be adept at communicating to politicians, policy makers, and investors, as well their scientific colleagues. Rounding out the judging panel were Eric Evans, PhD, chief scientific officer at Myriad Women’s Health, B. Joseph Guglielmo, PharmD, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy, Moira Gunn, PhD, host of NPR’s Tech Nation and Biotech Nation, and Francesca Vega, UCSF’s new vice chancellor for Community and Government Relations. The initial 24 video entries were judged earlier by a separate panel of seven judges.
Deshpande and third-place winner Brian Chiou, PhD, both said the event forced them to up their game in science communication.
“I learned how hard it is and how immersed we all are in our research,” said Chiou. His talk described the importance of myelin, a substance that insulates some nerve cells and helps them conduct signals efficiently. People with multiple sclerosis (MS) have damaged myelin, which affects muscle use and coordination. Chiou is investigating a protein that stimulates production of myelin, which could mean fewer symptoms and slower disease progression for patients with MS.
“I’ve always had difficulty talking with my parents about my work. Now I see that we have to go outside of our research to more effectively communicate it to everyone else. That’s something I didn’t really appreciate before I did this.”
Deshpande said honing his presentation taught him some new basic communication skills. “I’ve learned that just because you’re excited about something doesn’t mean others are excited. You have to find different angles to tell the same story and get other people interested in it.”
The evening’s other two winners researched different aspects of brain cancer. Aparna Bhaduri, PhD, who captured second place, told the audience about her work studying a subtype of stem cells that jump before they divide and may play a role in spreading glioblastomas, a type of brain tumor. People’s Choice champion Ziyang Zhang, PhD, talked about his efforts to better direct chemotherapy drugs in patients with brain cancer, so they attack only the tumor cells in the brain and not healthy cells in the body.
Not only did Slam participants take home new knowledge about communicating their work, the winners took home checks as well. Deshpande’s first place award was $3,000, and Bhaduri’s second place was $1,500. Chiou took home $1,000 and Zhang $750.
The event was part of National Postdoc Appreciation Week and also happened to fall on Rally for Medical Research Digital Advocacy Day, a national initiative to draw attention to the importance of National Institute of Health funding. Graduate student Leah Dorman was among those from UCSF’s Science Policy Group staffing a digital advocacy table at the Slam reception. “We want people to tweet at Congress and tell them we need to maintain robust NIH funding,” she said, “because the research we do here is saving lives.”
It was a fitting addition to an evening focused on the importance of being able to sling a succinct science message, whether in 140 characters or 180 seconds. People’s Choice winner Zhang sees the Postdoc slam as just one of many USCF efforts to help him hone those skills. “When I came here for my PhD, I didn’t think about communicating to people outside of science,” he said. “UCSF spends so much time and resources training us on this. Now it’s apparent to me how important science communication is.”