Third Annual Three Minute Thesis Competition

Three competition winners holding large checks.

On Friday, March 8, 2019, PhD research came to life in the university's third annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Winners Finalists Judges Emcee Event Photos

Competition Winners

First Place and People's Choice: Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra

Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra headshot.

Riddi Falk-Mahapatra's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Paul Peck] Our fourth presenter, her title is “War Against Cancer: Drop the Knife and Grab a Laser.” From Kolkata, India, say hello to Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra. [Audience applauds.] [Speaker: Paul Peck] Ready, set, pitch!

[Speaker: Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra] Let us consider this entire room as a human body. All the contestants, myself included could be the internal organs of this body, and the rest of you guys, Paul included, [points to Paul Peck] could be the awesome immune system.

It is your job as the immune system to protect the contestants, or the organs, against germs, and you're doing a great job. It is also your job to protect them against cancer. That is where you need some improvement. When you look at the contestants, myself included, you think everybody is looking really sharp, especially today, and you think all is good. What you fail to realize, is camouflaged among the contestants there is someone who is cancer. And because you, the immune system, fail to recognize that, cancer will now take over the entire room.

But what if your job was made easy? What if cancer were to stand before you and declare openly that I am the one who is cancer? Now it is the entire immune system versus the tiny me. I don't stand a chance. This is what I'm trying to achieve in my PhD: how to make cancer reveal its true identity to the immune system.

Our idea is: let's put the cancer under a lot of stress. That might force it to shed the camouflage. To test this idea we're using a drug. This drug will go into all parts of the body, including in me, cancer. And in Paul [Riddhi points to Paul] I didn't forget about you. [Paul laughs off stage.] Now this drug is perfectly harmless, until you expose it to light. So now we turn on the laser and we focus the light only on cancer. The drug starts to act in cancer and it puts cancer under a lot of stress. As a result, just as we expected, cancer sheds its camouflage. All the normal markers it was hiding from the immune system are now released. Now the immune system can see cancer and it proceeds to do what it is meant to do: kill cancer.

This way we have been successful to cure cancer in our experimental mice. You'll be happy to know that in Buffalo's very own Roswell Park, we are refining this treatment for patients. So, no more painful surgeries. Goodbye knives! [Riddhi waves her hand in the air.] And the best part is: by focusing the light only on cancer, we prevent any harmful side effects on the rest of the body. So, my research is helping you guys, the immune system, obtain a better weapon in your war against cancer. To help protect the internal organs, it's time we drop the knives and grab a laser. Thank you.

[Audience applauds.]

[Speaker: Graham Hammill] First place: War Against Cancer: Drop the Knife and Grab a Laser [Audience applauds and cheers.] [Speaker: Graham Hammill] Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra. And finally People's Choice Award: Also War Against Cancer: Drop the Knife and Grab a Laser: Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra. [Audience applauds and cheers.]

PhD Program: Cancer Sciences, Roswell Park Cancer Institute

Advisor: Sandra Gollnick

Biography: Riddhi Falk-Mahapatra is from India and has also lived in England. As a PhD student in Cancer Sciences, Roswell Park Graduate Division, her research ambition is to improve the efficacy of laser-based cancer therapy. Falk-Mahapatra is studying mechanisms by which anti-cancer immunity can be re-activated, and is using laser technology to re-train the immune system to identify and eliminate cancer. Her interests include traveling, playing board games, experimenting with new cuisines, meeting new people and reading. In the future, Falk-Mahapatra plans to work in the field of translational research.

Second Place: Konstantinos Plakas

Konstantinos Plakas headshot.

Konstantinos Plakas' 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Paul Peck] He's here to shed some light on cancer detection. From Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, and the College of Arts and Sciences, its Konstantinos Plakas. [Audience applauds.] [Speaker: Paul Peck] Ready, set, pitch!

[Speaker: Konstantinos Plakas] Good afternoon. Please raise your hand if you, or someone you know, has been affected by cancer. [Several audience members, and Konstantinos raise their hands.] Me too. I lost my aunt when I was about 13. For every 10 of you joining us in the audience today, four of you will be diagnosed with cancer at some point throughout your life. Of those that are diagnosed, up to 20 percent won't survive their battle. I realize these are troubling statistics I presented you with, but I would encourage you to remain optimistic because I think cancer is a problem that we can solve. The scientific community has done a terrific job developing new anti-cancer medicine. But the main issue remains that we catch cancer too late. With most diagnoses still coming at stage three and four, where your chances of survival are minimal. Alternatively, when we catch cancer early, we can treat it more effectively. A stage one or two diagnosis will carry with it, up to a 90 percent chance of being able to be cured.

The goal of my research is to develop a new screening technique called Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, or SERS, that we can use to catch more patients at the stage one and two category. To describe this technology, I'd like us first to consider an analogy. I want you to envision your body as being represented by a satellite-generated map. Now if you're anything like me, you needed a map to get here today, regardless of how close you might work to this actual building. Maps can do a great job at showing us how to get from point A to B. But what they can’t do is provide us real time information. For example, it would have been very useful to know what sidewalks were icy on my walk over today. Instead, it would be much more useful, if we had a reporter. Someone who can sort of travel our route for us and then give us our information back in real time. The goal of my research is to develop these reporters that we can inject into you that travel around your body and report back information about different diseases that might be developing.

My reporters are non-toxic and they're also remarkably sensitive, capable of detecting just a few thousand cancer cells. Something else of note is that my reporters and this technology is minimally invasive, much more so than current clinical imaging like x-ray's, MRI's and CAT scans. Meaning that the 70 percent of cancer deaths that occur worldwide in developing countries, we can now image, and detect, and treat there too. The most promising aspect of this technology is that we can inject multiple reporters into you simultaneously, and have each report back on different information and different diseases that might develop in the near future, saving a physician time, and enabling them to treat you more effectively.

Now if you think this sounds far-fetched or too good to be true, well then I'm happy to say this is already in-use in operating rooms with our collaborators in the United Kingdom. And it’s my hope that this soon will become the global gold-standard used in the United States as well. Thank you.

[Audience applauds]

PhD Program: Chemistry

Advisor: Michael Detty

Biography: Konstantinos Plakas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry and a member of the American Chemical Society. He is using synthetic organic chemistry to make molecules for probes that scientists can use to image the body. Plakas’ ambition is to develop more sensitive, less invasive tools for early detection of cancer. Outside of the lab, he enjoys playing ice hockey, cycling and reading. In the future, Plakas plans to obtain a postdoctoral research position to study radiochemistry.

Third Place: Abdulrahman Hassaballah

Abdulrahman Hassaballah headshot .

Abdulrahman Hassaballah's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Paul Peck] From Cairo, Egypt, he’s the pride of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and he’ll tell us, whether we want to know or not, how to swim without dying in poop water. I don’t know what else to say other than to have you welcome Abdulrahman Hassaballah. [Audience applauds.] Alright for our final one of the day, you guys all want to help me with the last thing I’m supposed to say here? You ready?

[Audience and Paul Peck in unison] Ready, set, pitch.

[Speaker: Abdulrahman Hassaballah] Whether you do it first thing in the morning or prefer an evening session, most of us here once relieved, tend to use water to flush away our poop. Sometimes, as in the case with me, it even takes two flushes. [Audience laughs.] It’s a dirty business we all partake in, but tend not to think about it once it’s all gone.

Now imagine if all that poop water did not go away. Instead, it’s sitting around in our backyards, or collecting in Lake LaSalle. We would be living in a public health nightmare. My PhD focuses on how we can use organic and novel techniques to treat sewage.

We as humans treat sewage through extensive sanitation treatment. Sanitation treatment is important for society to function. And according to the British Medical Journal, it is the most important medical advancement of the past century and a half.

Now there are many steps to how we can treat sewage. One of those steps is disinfection by chlorine, to kill off pathogens, bacteria that can make us sick. When sewage is treated, we release it from treatment facilities into the swimming pools of nature, such as rivers and lakes. We recently learned however, that small amounts of chlorine, just 100 micrograms per liter, can remain in this treated sewage. And when released it can be harmful to the environment, toxic to fish, and carcinogenic to humans. This can happen here, every summer when combined sewers overflow into Lake Erie. It is an alarming wake-up call, and there is a need for an alternative disinfectant, suitable to treat our sewage without harming the environment. That is why I am investigating the effects of organic acids against bacteria found in sewage.

The word “acid” may sound a little scary, but the kind I’m studying is called “peracetic acid” and it’s not very different from vinegar—the salad dressing vinegar. And when released, it’s relatively harmless. Peracetic acid is more expensive than the traditionally-used chlorine. But it is not as expensive as other treatment options already established in the industry, such as UV or ultraviolet light. But then again, anything worth having doesn’t come easy or cheap. Especially when it comes to water, earths most valuable resource.

I’m proud to say that my research serves as a critical contribution towards leading the way in understanding how peracetic acid works. Not only against bacteria, but also against viruses, parasites with their own slew of diseases and health defects. Research is novel because I also investigate the effects of peracetic acid in combination with established methods like UV. I do this using pilot-scale studies at treatment facilities, in addition to laboratory-scale experiments here at UB. This allows us to understand the scalability against a wide range of fecal indicators. I believe it is research with big implications that can positively disrupt the industry by safeguarding the health of society and the environment we are inherently a part of. Thank you.

[Audience applauds.]

PhD Program: Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Advisor: Lauren Sassoubre

Biography: From Cairo, Egypt, Abdulrahman Hassaballah is a PhD student in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, and a member of the New York Water Environment Association. His research focuses on the disinfection of microorganisms at water resource recovery facilities. Hassaballah aspires to develop new wastewater disinfection technologies as eco-friendly alternatives to traditional chlorine based wastewater treatment. Among his interests are skiing, hiking, camping and playing board games. Upon graduation, Hassaballah plans to continue working to protect the environment and water resources.