Biomedical Sciences Retreat Roundup

by Nina Gao

Our annual BMS program retreat was held in the lovely Omni Rancho Las Palmas Palm Springs resort back in September. Here are some of the highlights from the 3 day, 2 night event!

Keynote speaker: Dr. Mina Bissell

XBD201112-01374-17.TIFDr. Bissell came to us from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the bay area. Her research has shaped the field of cancer biology research.

As well as speaking about her impressive research exploring environmental context cues for cell identity, she insisted that we (as graduate students and young researchers) keep two things in mind:

  1. Exercise for our health, and
  2. Always consider alternatives. There were times when Mina did not feel welcome in the cancer research field. Her back up plan? Running a Persian restaurant: “If science didn’t work out, I would have run such good restaurant.”

Jokes aside, Mina emphasized that the path in life is not easy, but we should not give up our passions. Mina encouraged us all to keep pursuing our interests, despite adversity and challenges.

Scientific research talks

    • Samantha Jones (Wilkinson lab): “The Role of a Once Mysterious RNA Decay Paralog in Spermatogenesis”
    • Alan West (Corbett lab): “Assembly and dynamics of the meiotic chromosome axis”
    • Sophia Espanola (Traver lab): “Histone chaperone, supt16h, regulates transcription of Notch elements of specific hematopoietic stem cells”
    • Fernando Martinez (Yeo lab): “Protein-RNA networks regulated by normal and ALS-associated mutant HNRNPA2B1 in the nervous system”
    • Ayla Sessions (Engler lab): “Extracellular Matrix Downregulation in the Drosophila Heart Preserves Contractile Function and Improves Lifespan”
    • *Dan Kaufman, MD-PhD: “Blood and immune cell development from human pluripotent stem cells”
    • Steve Searles (Bui lab): “Cell-cell fusion as a mechanism of DNA exchange and clonal diversification in cancer”
    • Julia Callender (Newton lab): “Deregulated Protein Kinase C Signaling in Alzheimer’s Disease”
    • Daniel Sandoval (Esko lab): “Binders Keepers: Probing the Interaction of Heparan Sulfate and CLEC14A”
    • *Larissa Podust, PhD: “Structure-aided drug design for neglected tropical diseases”

*new BMS faculty

Winner of best talk: Julia Callender

Julia gave a clear and visually-clean presentation on her work in the Newton lab. She is investigating protein kinase C (PKC) alpha mutations identified in Alzheimer’s patients. Previous work in the lab linked PKC loss-of-function mutations to cancer, but Julia’s studies suggest that enhanced PKC signaling is tied to neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s disease.

2016 Outstanding Dissertation Award: Leo Lin (Nizet lab)

“Exploring Antibiotic and Innate Immune Synergies to Treat Multidrug-Resistant Bacterial Infections”

(Alternate title: “Bad Bugs? No Drugs?”)

Leo Lin is a trainee in the medical scientist training program. In his brief talk, he discussed how a patient suffering an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection unexpectedly recovered with the use of antibiotics. His work shows the previously ignored synergy between antibiotics and natural host immune defenses, emphasizing the need to explore the function of antibiotics in a physiologically relevant setting.

He also spoke on the importance of mentorship in grad school, which is all too frequently overshadowed by research interests and the drive to publish. Now that he has finished his PhD, he is back in medical school, trying to survive year 3. He is considering residencies in pathology, psychiatry, medicine, and pediatrics. He aspires to become a professor at a medical school, where he can teach and research as well as care for patients.

Poster session
An evening poster session featured the diverse research from many BMS labs from across the San Diego research mesa. Several faculty judges listened to presentations and determined the best posters.

Winners of best posters (alphabetical order):

  • Tim Baffi (Newton lab): “mTORC2 Functions as a Molecular Chaperone to Regulate the Folding and Activity of Protein Kinase C”
  • Afsheen Banisadr (Engler/Furnari labs): “Heterogeneity in Cell-Matrix Adhesion as an Indicator of Tumor Cell Metastatic State”
  • Jason Munguia (Nizet lab): “Targeting the Mla pathway in multi-drug resistant Gram-negative bacteria to sensitize them to the innate immune system”

Research photo contest 

1st place: Anthony Schmitt (Ren lab)

2nd place: Dina Schneider (Miller lab)

3rd place: Jennifer Dumdie (Cook-Andersen/Wilkinson labs)

4th place: Ayla Sessions (Engler lab)

2016 BMS T-shirt design winner: Navarre Gutierrez-Reed


Congratulations to Navarre (Hnasko lab) for winning the T-shirt design contest. He uses heatmaps to identify patterns in everything from mouse behavior to RNAseq data. “I wanted to make a visually catchy design that not only advertised BMS, but conveyed some of what BMS students do, all using the tools of the trade,” said Navarre.

And with each new academic year, we bring in a new council to run and manage our events. Introducing…

BMS Council 2016-2017

Co-presidents: Chelsea Painter & Terry Solomon

Vice president: Valerie Sapp

GSA representatives: Christina Alarcόn, Ryan Geusz, Valerie Sapp

Social directors: Cayce Dorrier & Nina Gao

First year representatives: Emily Griffin, Aaron Oom, Michael Valdez

Career development committee: Afsheen Banisadr, Cayce Dorrier, Elaine Guo

Student-Faculty Events Committee: Jessica Lawrence & Sarah Ur

Webmaster: Jon Okerblom

Student-invited speaker organizers: Aleena Arakaki & Michael Vaill

Lunch talk organizers: Ian Mathews & Robert Mills

Overall, this year’s BMS Retreat 2016 was a huge success! (Special thanks to our retreat organizers: Elaine Guo & Nathan Jameson.) As always, it served as a reminder of all the great and amazing things that our students and faculty are working on here in the BMS program.

(Late night karaoke reminds most of us that we made the right career choice by pursuing science instead of pop stardom.)

Retreat has been a great way to welcome our fresh incoming students and kick off the new academic year! Look forward to a new year of posts from the blog team.


Comments or suggestions? Anything you’d like to see from us, or maybe you have something you’d like to contribute? Drop us a line at! We’re always looking for new content and suggestions to improve our posts.  


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