Graduate Student Retreat Educates Audience and Presenters Alike

By Jason Socrates Bardi

The Scripps Research Institute's (TSRI) two graduate programs—the Macromolecular and Cellular Structure and Chemistry (MCSC) Program and the Chemistry Program—held the eighth annual retreat for students and faculty Friday, September 28 at San Diego's Shelter Point Hotel and Marina.

For returning students, the retreat was an opportunity to gain experience presenting their results or works-in-progress and compete for prizes for the best presentations. For first-years, the retreat offered an opportunity to get a feel for the depth and breadth of the research at TSRI and to meet many of their upper-class peers and faculty from a variety of departments.

First-year MCSC student Stephanie Gupton appreciated the peek at what's to come. "It's good for letting me know the standard and level of expectations," she says. "This program is making me see a lot of areas."

In all, there were 95 posters and 18 talks, nine from each program.

"A lot of work goes into the production of these posters. It's always been at a very high level and with strong faculty participation," says Steve Sholly, a third-year MCSC student.

That's true, according to another Steve—Associate Dean Steve Mayfield, also associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology. "This is as good as any meeting we go to," he says. "This could be a Gordon Research Conference. This could be a Keystone meeting. The projects they are working on and the quality of the science are outstanding."

For instance, James Turner, who presented the final talk of the afternoon, spoke about the biochemical and structural characterization of cocaine esterase, an enzyme that breaks down cocaine 1,000 times faster than any other known enzyme—activity that may make it invaluable in an emergency room.

"Currently, thousands of people show up in hospital emergency rooms overdosed on cocaine, and there is no effective treatment," he says. " Someday, they might get an [esterase] injection that would clear the cocaine from their bloodstream within seconds."

Professor and Director of The Skaggs Institute Julius Rebek, one of the 40 TSRI faculty members who attended the conference, emphasizes the educational value of the retreat. "You can't just do science anymore," he says. "You have to make others aware of it."

"The first time I gave a lecture," he adds, "I was warned that I might break the chalk. That [warning] was unnecessary because I ground it to a powder in my hand."

Among the many outstanding presentations, a few were selected to receive special recognition. The authors were:

  • Fourth-year MSCS student Nadim Jessani, who won the $300 prize for best MCSC poster;
  • Fourth-year MCSC student Jawdat Al-Bassam, who won the $300 prize for best MCSC talk;
  • Third-year Chemistry student Songpon Deechongkit, who won the $300 prize for best Chemistry poster; and
  • Fifth-year Chemistry student Federico Bernal, who won the $300 prize for best Chemistry talk.

In addition, Professor Ian Wilson announced the recipient of this year's Jairo H. Arèvalo Award: fourth-year Chemistry student, Fraser Hof. The Graduate Program established the Jairo H. Arèvalo fellowship to be awarded to a student in his or her second year or beyond in memory of Jairo H. Arèvalo, TSRI's first doctoral degree recipient. The award is in the amount of $3,000 for one year. The criteria for selection are those qualities of academic scholarship, achievement, enthusiasm, motivation, commitment, and thirst for knowledge that were so apparent in Arèvalo.





Posters and talks showcased the work of TSRI graduate students at the annual retreat. Photo by Jason Socrates Bardi.