We’ve got our September winners for the Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize!

It’s September and we are adding another two researchers to the Sparrho Hall of Fame as winners of this month’s Early Career Researcher Prize. These two young scientists will both receive £500 towards attending a conference of their choice.

Linda Zhang, Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University, USA is exploring the use of bioactive lipids and novel treatments for atherosclerosis. Find her on Instagram, @justliz83

Linda Zhang — Vanderbilt University, USA

Steven Heaton, PhD Student at Monash University, Australia is exploring creative new ways to design antiviral therapies. Find him on Twitter @oRLRly.

Steven Heaton — Monash University, Australia

Linda and Steven will each receive a £500 grant to help them present their research at the conferences they will be attending in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and Kobe, Japan (respectively).

Learn more about these two exciting young scientists below and be sure to check our blog later to read about their experiences in more detail.

Linda Zhang

Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt University, USA

#atherosclerosis #gutmicrobiome

Linda will be speaking at the Bioactive Lipids in Cancer, Inflammation, and Related Diseases Conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in October 2017. She was previously shortlisted in the July round.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert?Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fatty cholesterol-laden plaques in arteries and hallmark of cardiovascular disease, which kills one in three people in Westernised societies.

“My research focuses on understanding the atherosclerotic disease processes and developing pharmacological strategies to prevent disease.”

I study two strategies to target the inflammatory disease process:

  1. the use of gut bacteria engineered to produce anti-inflammatory molecules,
  2. the use of small molecule scavengers that target reactive molecules generated in disease that cause inflammation and pathological consequences

How has your research field already contributed to the world? Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide and novel pharmacological strategies are needed since lifestyle changes are oftentimes difficult to adhere. My research examines two different strategies to treat atherosclerosis.

One strategy is modulating the gut microbiome by engineering a particular microbial species to produce therapeutic molecules with anti-inflammatory effects.

Another strategy focuses on protecting our cells and proteins from oxidative attack by inflammatory and reactive molecules generated during disease, by developing small molecules that scavenge the harmful molecules.

Both are novel strategies aimed to prevent the progression of atherosclerosis and thus reduce the rate of death worldwide.

“Begin with a simple goal to learn three things, ask three questions and meet three people.”

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? Come into the conference with a mission, and you will get so much more value out of it. Begin with a simple goal to learn three things, ask three questions and meet three people.

In addition to attending oral presentations, do attend the poster sessions because they are a great way to informally connect with others to share research ideas & questions (oftentimes over coffee, food or beer!).

Take every opportunity to submit abstracts to be accepted for presentation because not only do you have the opportunity to share your latest research findings and practice your presentation skills, but you will also have the chance to make yourself known to peers and senior investigators from around the world. Finally, have lots of fun!

Read more about Linda’s research here.

Steven Heaton

PhD Student at Monash University, Australia

#antiviral #immunity #virus #cure

Steven will be speaking at the Consortium of Biological Sciences (ConBio2017), Kobe, Japan in December 2017.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? When we fall ill we can usually feel it in ways including tiredness, soreness, a runny nose, headache and so on, and this usually prompts certain changes in our behaviour, such as going to see the doctor. But how do individual cells know they are infected with a virus, and how do they decide what the correct response should be? My research passion is to understand these antiviral sensing mechanisms, how they are wired to propagate appropriate immune responses in any one of hundreds of possible directions, and how evolutionarily diverse viruses including HIV shut these mechanisms down to support their own replication.

What can your field of research contribute to the world? Understanding how molecules traffic around the cell in a coordinated manner, and the mechanisms by which cells detect and respond to infection, are two seminal research fields that have attracted Nobel Prizes. This is for good reason; so very much of our understanding of the host−pathogen interplay is derived from this research. This is crucial because seldom are two different viruses lethal in the same way. But by targeting these mechanisms we are producing hundreds of marketable treatments, not only to infection but also to inflammatory disorders and cancer.

Why are you a scientist and what are most excited about? Science is one of my creative outlets, and I consider my work to be a daily expression of duty, solidarity and of love. The “domineering temper of the sensual world”, writes Ralf Waldo Emerson, “creates the extreme need for the priests of science”. These words were first ventilated in the year 1838, and I believe their considerable foresight has become ever more apparent in what appears to be, at least in parts of the English-speaking world, the current ‘post-truth era’. Doing good science but also communicating well to the people who both fund and benefit from it, which in many cases is taxpayers, are both crucially important aspects of a scientific career. On a basic level, I believe that if there is a will there is a way, and if anyone can do it, I can; but if no-one can do it, I must.

“Doing good science but also communicating well to the people who both fund and benefit from it, which in many cases is taxpayers, are both crucially important aspects of a scientific career.”

We now have technologies at our disposal to systematically dismantle and precisely examine entire signalling pathways of the cell. We are now developing artificial intelligence and additional technologies to harness the sheer volume of information we are capable of generating, which is an increasingly difficult problem for individual researchers. This kind of research is only in its infancy, but this knowledge will revolutionise all kinds applications derived from medical research over the next two decades. It is both an extremely exciting and challenging time to be in medical research, and those who can be expert in multiple fields will be placed front and centre on its crest.

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? Good science requires a high degree of self-motivation. This can come in various ways, but one important way for me is by surrounding myself with inspired and motivated people. Those who are selected to give a presentation have usually gone to a lot of effort to make that opportunity happen. Presenting my work and seeing the achievements of others, and then making contact with these inspiring people and exchanging ideas or technical advice, is something that I draw a lot of energy from. Conferences are also one of the best opportunities to meet potential future employers or collaborators, and so presenting one’s work acts as a mechanism for this, as well as for keeping oneself sharp and on the cutting edge of one’s field. If the opportunity to present is in a foreign country with a fascinating culture to explore, all the better.

“While it is important to attend conferences and this might provide useful bullet points on some CVs, this mindset is wanting in several ways. My key piece of advice would be, if you decide to attend a conference, attend it with a strong purpose.”

As students, we hear seemingly daily testimony of the need to attend conferences, often wrapped in a pretext of being good, usually in some vague sense, for one’s CV. While it is important to attend conferences and this might provide useful bullet points on some CVs, this mindset is wanting in several ways. My key piece of advice would be, if you decide to attend a conference, attend it with a strong purpose. Your purpose might be to meet one particular researcher in attendance, or to win a prize, or to scout potential research groups in a foreign country, or all of the above, or something else entirely. Whatever your purpose is, fight for it with all of your talent, setting up the right series of events to lead you to it, yet all the while yielding to the persuasion of nature in conducting and presenting your experiments. Your PhD is an invaluable thing; purposefully guided, the years of investment will become your ticket to multiple new worlds inside and out. Though you will not always succeed, if you are fortified with the right purpose you will always improve along the path to achievement.

Read more about Steven’s research here.


The above applicants are finalists in Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize that awards £500 to early career scientists who is presenting their work at an academic conference. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research. Applications close at the end of each month and reviewed on a rolling basis.

Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize now receiving entries!
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