In Case You Missed It—The NIAID 14th Annual Fellows Virtual Workshop

This year’s workshop image was provided by Brittany Riggle, Ph.D., NIAID Research Fellow and TmT winner. This is a multiplex immunohistochemistry image that was taken as part of a study analyzing brain tissue samples from children who died from cerebral malaria or other causes and were either HIV+ or HIV-. This work was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Riggle et al.).

By Eimear Holton, NIAID Training Social Media/Web/Outreach Program Specialist

On December 8 and 9, 2020, the NIAID 14th Annual Fellows Workshop went virtual for the first time to accommodate a new reality imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the unexpected format shift, the workshop's goal remained: to celebrate NIAID intramural fellows for their work advancing the Institute's scientific mission. Framed by the urgency of infectious disease research in today's world, over 60 graduate students and postdocs presented their work in oral presentations, Three-minute Talks (TmTs), and virtual posters. Fortunately, the computer screen seamlessly conveyed the excitement and enthusiasm of current research progress—and created a sense of community for scientists located at distant sites, ranging from Maryland to Montana.

NIAID’s Outstanding Mentor of the Year, Jonathan Yewdell, M.D., Ph.D., kicked off the workshop with his talk titled, “How To Succeed in Mentoring Without Really Trying.” Beginning with a brief research talk to warm up the audience, Dr. Yewdell doled out the secrets of being an outstanding mentor—attendees learned there are no secrets but rather simple principles that anyone can enact throughout their career. He emphasized how happy and fun labs are typically productive and work well together, how encouraging and promoting fellows will help them succeed, and how being a great role model is the key to great mentoring. "Show rather than say,” Dr. Yewdell said as he reflected back on his career.
Energized by the opening talk, the morning plenary speaker, Neil King, Ph.D., beamed in from the Institute of Protein Design at the University of Washington with an inspiring scientific talk on the development of novel technologies to design self-assembling proteins with potential applications in drug delivery and more efficient vaccines. Dr. King, a VRC collaborator, presented preliminary data showing how nanoparticle vaccines may outperform currently available vaccines. An engaging talk resulted in an engaged audience, with Dr. King receiving rapid-fire questions from the audience, including some great questions from inspired postbacs.
Four NIAID fellows gave oral presentations on their research on Ebola virus, COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2, and respiratory syncytial virus. Julia Port, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Virology at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, is the recipient of the award for best oral talk. Following the oral presentations, thirteen fellows presented TmTs in quick succession, providing a snap-reel of the creative and collaborative research taking place at the graduate student and postdoc levels in NIAID. Animations brought the science to life, and each talk was illuminated by the presenters’ unique styles and personalities. Judges selected the three best talks to enter the NIH-wide TmT competition in the spring. Brittany Riggle, Ph.D., who recently converted to a research fellow, won first place while Lawrence Wang, Ph.D., and Thiago Soares de Souza Viera, Ph.D., won second and third places, respectively and will accompany Brittany at the NIH-wide competition.
The first day of the workshop closed with a nice change of pace with much needed—it is 2020, after all—comic relief from science communicator-turned-science comedian, Kasha Patel. Kasha sprinkled science jokes throughout her plenary talk to explain her professional journey, comic inspirations, and nerdy anecdotes. When asked by a fellow how to use humor tactfully when presenting their science, her advice was to be creative while always communicating the science accurately. She likened science communication to science comedy: “In science communication you explain a complex idea and make people understand it; in science comedy you take a complex idea and make people laugh about it.”

The second day of the workshop showcased the virtual poster presentations of over 40 NIAID fellows, with the NIAID community assembling for a day of presentations that focused solely on the fellows. The winners from each session were Padmapriya Sekar, Ph.D.; Apollo Stacy, Ph.D.; Abhijit Ambegaonkar, Ph.D.; and Emma Price, Ph.D. Many fellows remarked that seeing one another’s faces was a nice change from emailing and web chats, making the poster session one of the most engaging elements of the workshop.  As the final fellows’ event of a long year, there is good reason to look ahead to 2021 with optimism. NIAID research fellows showed their resilience to adversity and their willingness to do the hard and important work our world is relying on.

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