January 2011

Looking back on the ASBMB undergraduate poster competition

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Undergraduate Affiliate Network will host its 15th annual Undergraduate Student Research Poster Competition in Washington, D.C. on April 9. The competition has grown from just under 50 participants in 1997 to almost 180 in 2010. To celebrate this anniversary, we interviewed a number of former poster competition award winners to learn how ASBMB has affected their scientific careers.

HernandezHector H. Hernandez

Hector H. Hernandez won a poster competition award in 1999 for his poster titled “Modeling the cytochrome C reductase domain of spinach nitrate reductase.” That year, the society’s annual meeting was held in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Calif. Hector recalls being amazed by the number and diversity of the participants: “I remember walking into the assembly hall in the Moscone Center in San Francisco and being struck by how many people were there. It was like a coming home to me. These individuals were like me, thought like me and approached unknown questions in a systematic manner looking for answers that push our understanding of the world around us. The other thing that struck me was the diversity of the members of the scientific community. Although the people there spoke many languages and were from diverse backgrounds, the common language of science united them.”

Hector started his professional science career at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla., where he became involved in the National Institutes of Health Bridges to the Baccalaureate program. The program offered him the opportunity to conduct summer research in Michael Barber’s laboratory in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida. While at USF, Hector presented his award-winning poster at the San Francisco ASBMB meeting and met his future graduate advisor. Hector’s research in the Barber lab also led to a peer-reviewed publication in the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics (1). After graduating, Hector continued on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for both graduate school and postdoctoral experience in the labs of Catherine L. Drennan and Janelle R. Thompson. Currently, Hector studies how microbes adapt to extreme environments as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar in the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT.

“The ASBMB-UAN experience gave me the opportunity to go and experience an international scientific conference,” says Hector. “Before that, my only contact was with my lab and department members at my academic institution. I do not want to diminish these experiences, but the ASBMB-UAN experience opened up a whole different world to me. I enjoyed seeing how old friends met and caught up on science and life during the conference. These interactions confirmed that being a scientist is a fruitful and rewarding life. It was great to see how scientists who do not always agree on an interpretation of a fact could still be civil and even friendly to each other.”

Attending the annual meeting and participating in the poster competition also had a major impact on Hector’s career path. He explains, “The ASBMB conference was where I met my Ph.D. advisor. If it were not for that interaction, I do not believe that I would have had the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry at MIT. I do not think I could emphasize enough the impact that interaction has made on my life. It is these fortuitous encounters that are possible at a poster session or in short talks that can present opportunities that go far beyond the ability of an undergraduate to comprehend at the time. It is only long after the event that you begin to comprehend and appreciate the significance of that interaction.”


Sadie Bartholomew

Sadie Bartholomew was a poster award winner in the biogenesis, transport and compartmentalization of lipids category in 2007.  Her poster was titled “Expression of PAT-1/MLDP increases triacylglycerol stores and promotes changes in lipid droplet morphology in a CHO cell model.” Sadie conducted her undergraduate research with John Tansey at Otterbein College, where she explored the role of a novel lipid storage droplet protein (PAT-1/MLDP) in cellular lipid content and stores with the long-term goal of understanding its role in lipid biogenesis, storage and metabolism. Her work with John at Otterbein led to a peer-reviewed publication in Biotechnology and Bioengineering (2).

Sadie feels that the ASBMB-UAN had an impact on her undergraduate career in two main ways: “First, it connected me to a number of leading researchers in my field from across the globe. Those whose names I had only read in the literature were actually chatting with me about my project – that was incredible and truly solidified my pursuit of a career in science. Second, the ASBMB-UAN enabled me to attend an ASBMB Lipid Droplet meeting in Vermont the summer following the national ASBMB meeting. Not only did I meet the organizers of the Lipid Droplet conference who personally invited me to attend, but the prize I won in the ASBMB-UAN poster competition helped to fund the Vermont trip. The experience at the Lipid Droplet meeting was beyond words for an aspiring young scientist – stimulating, engaging and reaffirming my passion for scientific endeavors.”

Sadie currently is a graduate student in the biochemistry department at Stanford University, working with James Spudich.

KnerrPatrick Knerr

Patrick Knerr won his poster award in 2008 for a poster titled “Metal-triggered hydrogelation of self-assembling β-hairpin peptides.” Patrick conducted his undergraduate research with Joel Schneider at the University of Delaware, where he explored the design of peptides that can be triggered by environmental stimuli, such as pH, temperature and ionic strength, to self-assemble into rigid hydrogel materials from aqueous solutions. These materials can be useful in a variety of applications, including tissue engineering and microfluidics. Patrick sought to use the binding of metal ions as the environmental trigger, a principle that potentially could be applied in the design of metal sensing or bioremediation systems. He and his colleagues found that incorporation of cysteine residues into the peptide sequence yielded sensitivity to a variety of metal ions, including zinc, arsenic and mercury. The metal-triggered hydrogels possessed similar mechanical and structural properties to peptide hydrogels previously studied in the lab.

Patrick found the opportunity to attend the annual meeting and present in the ASBMB-UAN poster competition to be an invaluable experience. He also enjoyed being part of the local UAN at the University of Delaware, which gave him the opportunity to socialize with other biology and chemistry majors.

Patrick currently is a graduate student in the chemistry department and a chemical and biology interface trainee at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is designing enzymatic and chemical means to synthesize potent cyclic antimicrobial peptides in Wilfred van der Donk’s laboratory.


1. Barber, M. J., Desai, S. K., Marohnic, C. C., Hernandez, H. H., and Pollock, V. V. (2002)Synthesis and bacterial expression of a gene encoding the heme domain of assimilatory nitrate reductase. Arch. Biochem. Biophys. 402, 38 – 50.

2. Bartholomew, S. R., and Tansey, J. T. (2007) Cost-effective engineering of a small-scale bioreactor. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 96, 401 – 407.

Todd Weaver (weaver.todd@uwlax.edu) is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and David Bevan (drbevan@vt.edu) is an associate professor of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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