By Wendy Sarubbi | April 1, 2021 11:36 am
Doctoral students Nicholas Castaneda, Kritika Kedarinath and Sai Preethi Nakkina.

For future biomedical scientist Sai Preethi Nakkina, research is like unlocking a mystery. “I have always been fascinated with research because it’s like looking for clues, step by step along the way to solving a mystery,” said Nakkina who has spent much of her UCF graduate student career researching pancreatic cancer. “I have always been curious about how the human body works and human diseases specifically cancer, as this is something that happens spontaneously in the body. So I’ve always wanted to understand more about the genetics behind it and what predisposes humans to have various cancers.”

Nakkina was one of 14 doctoral students who presented their thesis research at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences’ Graduate Research Symposium, held virtually this spring.  The annual event gives students an opportunity to present their research in front of their peers, faculty and staff, providing a forum for interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration. Last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19, however organizers hosted a virtual version this year for doctoral students over a series of Fridays on March 5, 12 and 19.

“Having a virtual presentation was equally intimidating as an in-person one as I was very aware that I had to present to all the faculty in the department,” said Nakkina, who was awarded third place for her study on developing therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, mentored by faculty researcher Dr. Deborah Altomare.

“But I really appreciated this platform and was grateful we were still able to have it virtually,” she added, “because we get an opportunity, as budding biomedical scientists, to present to subject matter experts who give us valuable and helpful feedback.”

Each student had 15 minutes to present their research to a panel of judges that included Burnett School faculty members. Winners received monetary rewards made possible by donations from the Annie Oakley Fund, the Burnett Family Fund and Burnett School faculty.

The top winner was doctoral candidate Nicholas Castaneda, mentored by faculty researcher Dr. Ellen Kang, who presented his research on actin cytoskeleton, a network of proteins that play a critical role in cell growth.

“Actin cytoskeleton is the backbone that really holds up and provides support for cells,” he said. “So the idea is to look at how the environments within cells actually affects that structure. Learning about all these different factors and the role they play, we can then apply this knowledge to protein-related diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.”

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Kritika Kedarinath earned second place for her research on using the Zika virus to infect and destroy neuroblastoma cancer cells as a target for immunotherapy. Mentored by virologist Dr. Griff Parks, Kedarinath said she was honored to receive the recognition especially since the pandemic affected her research.  

“I think my studies slowed down a little bit in the initial phase of the lockdown,” she said. “I did lose a few months of work but when we were allowed back in the labs, I worked twice as hard to try and pick up where I was behind.”

Dr. Parks who is the associate dean for research and director of the Burnett School, said he was pleased with the quality and breadth of research showcased, especially amid the challenges of the past year.

“This year’s virtual symposium was a testament to the resilience and hard work our students have put into their graduate careers – despite the negative impact of the pandemic on research,” Dr. Parks said. “The presentations and science were excellent and spanned such a wide range of biomedical science topics. We are especially grateful to the Hollie and Anna Oakley Foundation and also to cardiovascular chair and professor Dr. Dinender Singla for their generous contributions in support of our program.”

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