Molecular Medicine adds dose of fun to academic retreat

Beer isn’t a topic you’d typically associate with a scholarly gathering of faculty and graduate students.  Neither would you expect to see a departmental chairman riding a bicycle across a steel-cable high wire 30 feet above the ground.

But when experienced and aspiring scientists met March 5 at the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) for the 2014 Department of Molecular Medicine Retreat, they decided to shake things up a bit.

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Krishna Reddy, a PhD student in Molecular Medicine, takes a spin on the high-wire bicycle at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry, where the department’s recent retreat was held.

The daylong event included 48 traditional oral and poster presentations featuring basic and translational research by students and faculty in the department’s three areas of emphasis – infectious diseases; neurosciences; and drug discovery, cancer & metabolism.

But the Department’s leadership also invited a keynote speaker who spoke about the archeology of beer instead of DNA, RNA, and proteins.  And, the lunchtime talk was followed by some free time to allow the 120 faculty members, students, postdoctoral fellows and staff to explore MOSI’s various interactive exhibits — from trying out the wind-tunnel tube simulating hurricane-force winds to encountering free-flying butterflies in the museum’s outdoor garden.

“All scientists are basically kids.  We stay curious about the world and try to figure out how things work,” said Bob Deschenes, PhD, professor and chair of Molecular Medicine. “So, the museum seemed like a great environment to hold a retreat and help stimulate creativity.”

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John Arthur, associate professor of anthropology at USF St. Petersburg, talked about the archaeology of beer.

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L to R: Bob Deschenes, PhD, chair of Molecular Medicine, with keynote speaker John Arthur, PhD, and Andreas Seyfang, PhD, associate professor who helped organize the retreat.

“The students are our major asset,” said Andreas Seyfang, PhD, associate professor of molecular medicine, who helped organize the retreat.  “We wanted the students to be the center of this day… to give them a chance to relax and have some fun, as well as interact on a scholarly level.”

Keynote speaker John Arthur, PhD, USF St. Petersburg associate professor of anthropology, talked about his extensive anthropological research into the role that beer, a staple of life and important trading commodity, has played in the development of civilizations dating back thousands of years.  He used examples from his study of the Gamo people of southwestern Ethiopia, where excavated pottery has shown signs of erosion indicating that beer was produced and stored in the ceramic vessels.

“I never, in a million years, thought I’d be asked to give a talk at a molecular medicine retreat,” Arthur said. “However, the next step in archeology will be archeology at the molecular level – getting down to looking at soil and artifacts microscopically and trying to understand behavior that way.”

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Alexa Woo, center, a PhD student in Molecular Medicine, has a blast in MOSI’s hurricane wind tunnel with retreat guests Hirah Khan, left, and Courtney Uhlar, both pre-med students.

Dr. Arthur said he was interested in enlisting some molecular medicine students, who learn about the role of yeast in biochemistry, to help him figure out the yeast aspect of ancient beer brewing by the Gamo people.

Retreat attendee Krishna Reddy, a PhD student in Dr. Deschenes laboratory, combines structural bioinformatics and molecular biology to study defects in zDHHC genes associated with diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.  He said he enjoyed listening to an academic speaker from a field outside science and medicine for a change.

“It was great. Not a single Western blot. No graphs,” Reddy said before being harnessed into the museum’s high-wire bicycle to take a spin.

Only one thing may have made the retreat even better, some of his fellow students quipped — beer samples.

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PhD student Alexis Killeen tries her hand at creating static electricity.

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The museum’s butterfly garden provided a relaxing respite.

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Nadine Nelson, a PhD candidate in Dr. Tomar Ghansah’s laboratory, was among the retreat’s poster presenters.

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Poster presentations featured basic and translational research by students and faculty in the department’s three areas of emphasis – infectious diseases; neurosciences; and drug discovery, cancer & metabolism.

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 Photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications