Fourth Annual Three Minute Thesis Competition

Shots of past competition participants in a honeycomb-like structure over a blue background.

On Friday, March 13, 2020, PhD research came to life at the university's fourth annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Winners Finalists Judges Event Photos

Competition Winners

First Place: Ben Rein

Ben Rein headshot.

Ben Rein's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Graham Hammill] The next presenter is Ben Rein, who's a PhD student in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The title of his 3MT presentation is "Putting the Brakes on Autism: A New Molecular Strategy." Ben is clearly a person with wide ranging interests. Not only did he enter his PhD program when he was 20 years old, but he also served as the chief editor for a nonfiction novel that was published last year, and four years ago, he produced and released a complete hip hop album. So, ready, set, pitch.

[Speaker: Ben Rein] You may not find it surprising that one in every 59 children is diagnosed with autism, a disorder that affects the way the brain develops in ways that make socializing very challenging. But with so many children affected, you may be surprised to learn that there are no drug treatments which can improve the social symptoms of autism. We know that about 60% of all autism cases are caused by gene mutation. But it's still very unclear exactly why or how these mutations lead to autism.

The goal of my research is to identify how these gene mutations change the brain. If we can answer this question, we can grow much closer to identifying treatment strategies, which may be able to improve the social symptoms of autism.

So, let's talk about the brain. The brain is made of billions of cells called neurons, which believe it or not, actually have conversations with each other. They do this by communicating at little junctions called synapses. An example of a synapse is shown on the left side of the screen.

Now, this is all very complicated, so let's break it down. Think about the brain like a road map of a big city, and each of these synapses, like an intersection with a traffic light. Just as traffic light signals stop or go to control the flow of traffic, these synapses can send either positive or negative signals to control the flow of information across brain cells. Of course, red lights are very important for preventing car accidents and traffic buildup. Similarly, we have red lights in the brain called Gaba synapses. And these are equally important for preventing brain activity from getting out of control. People who don't have autism have a healthy balance between red lights and green lights in the brain. But we often see that this balance is lost in patients with autism. And I wanted to get to the bottom of what was causing that. So, I looked into the brains of mice carrying one of the most common gene mutations in autism, and I found that in a brain area which controls social interaction, they actually had less of these red lights. And as a result, these mice showed reduced social interactions. Just imagine if the part of your brain controlling your social interactions was like a city with no red lights.

After investigating, I also found that a molecule called Npas4 was also reduced. And this is important because in the brain, Npas4 is responsible for building these red lights. By performing a surgical procedure, I was able to restore the level of Npas4, and I found that this, not only caused more red lights to be built, but more importantly, it made these mice significantly more social to the point where they were indistinguishable from normal mice.

This research indicates that by targeting Npas4 and building more red lights in the brain, we may have identified a new molecular strategy to put the brakes on autism. I'm very excited about this research and I can't wait to take it to the next level. In fact, I'm now testing drugs in the lab, which may be able to target Npas4, and therefore serve as novel therapeutics for autism.

I can't wait to complete this research here at UB. Thank you.

[Audience applauding.]

PhD Program: Physiology and Biophysics

Advisor: Zhen Yan

Biography: From Buffalo, New York, Ben Rein is a physiology and biophysics PhD candidate. He studies gene mutations and their effects on autism, with hopes that his research discoveries may advance understanding of autism’s biological basis and develop breakthrough treatment strategies with broad applications. Aside from reading, watching Jeopardy and exercising, he has also served a chief editor for a non-fiction novel and produced a hip-hop album under the alias “Cheezy B”. In the future, Rein hopes to run his own research laboratory that studies autism spectrum disorder, depression and sleep.

Second Place: Seyed Hamed Ghodsi

Seyed Hamed Ghodsi headshot.

Seyed Hamed Ghodsi's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Graham Hammill] Our ninth presenter is Seyed Hamed Ghodsi. Seyed's a PhD student in the Department of Civil Structural an Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the title of his presentation is "Combined Sewer Overflow Prediction and Reduction." Seyed is clearly a major sports fan, plays sports, playing soccer, volleyball and tennis, and is a fan of professional basketball, specifically, this season, the Lakers. So, ready, set, pitch.

[Speaker: Seyed Hamed Ghodsi] My journey starts when rainfall happens. As you may know, rainwater is one of the most valuable resources on the earth. However, this rainwater can act as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a main source of drinkable water, especially in arid areas like Africa. But it can overwhelm densely populated urban areas and have negative environmental consequences, such as urban flooding, and combined sewer overflow.

In my research, my focus is on this combined sewer overflow or CSOs problem. But what does that mean? Well, in cities like city of Buffalo, we have a combined sewer system, which means that when a rainfall happens, the runoff goes to the same pipelines where the sewage goes. So, as you probably can guess, when a rainstorm happens, this sewer system cannot handle all this mixed flow together. Therefore, a portion of that, instead of moving to the treatment plant, would be released to the water bodies, like Lake Erie, without any treatment. These aren't treated overflow, which contains many contaminants and can harm our local environment. It's called CSOs.

You should know that it is not only Buffalo, there are more than 700 cities in the entire United States are facing this problem. Millions of fishes die every year and many beaches have been closed because of this issue.

What if I tell you we can reduce this untreated overflow by up to 30 or even 40 percentage? Which in a real case of Buffalo, is more than 600 million gallons in a year. With my research, there is a way.

The solution lies in using green infrastructures, like green roofs and rain barrels. The concept is to capture the runoff at its source and infiltrated to the ground before it goes to the sewer system and causes overflows. Although we have a solution of green infrastructure, there is not yet a scientific way to determine the most effective type and placement of them. My research addresses this need by first developing an online monitoring tool and applying it for city of Buffalo. Actually, we are collaborating with the Buffalo Sewer Authority for the potential implementation of this system. By using this tool, we can better understand the operation of the present sewer system, including the CSO events.

Now, by knowing the current information of these untreated overflow like its quality and quantity, we have to take action to mitigate it. To continue this research, I am developing a decision making tool to find which type of green infrastructure we have to use, where we should locate them, and how many of them we should implement in the city to reduce the CSOs as much as we can.

Lastly, the final goal of my research is to create a scientific way to support the decision makers' large municipalities, to protect our aquatic environment, and also to improve the water quality that we all use for drinking, recreation and living. Thank you so much.

[Audience applauding.]

PhD Program: Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Advisor: Zhenduo Zhu

Biography: Seyed Hamed Ghodsi is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. In his research, Ghodsi is developing a tool to predict real-time combined sewer overflow (CSO) volume to reduce overflow, while keeping in mind municipality budgets and available area. The goal of his research is to understand the real impact of CSO on our environment, and find the best solution to overcome its negative effects. Ghodsi’s hobbies include soccer, volleyball and tennis. In the future he would like to work as a research and development engineer in an industry related to urban storm water management.

Third Place: Christopher Spence

Christopher Spence Headshot.

Christopher Spence's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Graham Hammill] The seventh presenter for today is Christopher Spence. Christopher is in the educational leadership and policy department in the Graduate School of Education. And the title of his 3MT presentation is "The Impact of High-Stakes Testing". One of the things that Christopher notes about himself is that his favorite sports team is UB's basketball team. So, go Bulls, and ready, set, pitch.

[Speaker: Christopher Spence] Hello. If you look at the screen, you see two graduates from two variant institutions. Can you tell me the differences between these two graduates? You can't, there aren't any noticeable differences. Better yet I ask, can you tell me the differences between a student that attended, that received a grade A at a nationally-ranked high school, versus one that received the same grade of A at one of the lowest performing schools in the nation? You can't. And this is why I argue for the necessity of high-stakes testing. Because high-stakes testing is essential, because it acts as a form of quality control within our educational system.

Could you imagine having a surgeon who went to one school and then a surgeon who went to another who did not have to take in some or did not receive an external barometer to assess the content knowledge that they have or their skills? That would be unconscionable. Well, the same thing is true in our schools.

Research tells us that when you look at children of color, and women, teachers hold varying expectations. We tend, as a profession, to hold high expectations for students of the majority, particularly Caucasian students. Meaning that the children of color, the most disadvantaged or likely to be disadvantaged by a teacher with low expectations within a system.

What I found in my research is that high-stakes testing, however, causes teachers to align their expectations with that of the state, thus raising their expectations. So, in order to effectively and efficiently assess what students are learning, what students are capable of doing, we must have an external barometer.

Think about it like this: How do you discern, again, who to admit to a school? How do you discern who to hire? You cannot do so without having that external barometer to assess what that student or person knows.

Too often in our educational system, we see that schools come to mean different things. Elite institutions are very different from low performing institutions. We've tried to figure out how our schools are stratified, and some people say poverty, some people say that its policies. But what I've found in my research is that one particular aspect that has not been researched is teachers' expectations as it relates to high-stakes testing.

High-stakes testing in a pressure to perform according to the state's will, rises teachers' expectations of students, irrespective of their gender or race. So in order to make sure that we are producing a product in our educational system that is of sound reason and mind and has the skills that are deemed necessary for college and career readiness, we must have an external barometer to assess students so that we can compare them and rate their skills. And that's why I argue that high-stakes testing is essential, because it is a part of quality control. Thank you.

[Audience applauding.]

PhD Program: Educational Leadership and Policy

Advisor: Lois Weis

Biography: Christopher Spence is an educational leadership and policy PhD candidate from Manhattan, and is a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., and the NAACP. He is studying the intersectionality between educational policy—particularly high-stakes testing—and teachers’ expectations of students as it relates to the black and white achievement gap. His goal is to extend the scholarly imagination in relation to how people think about social reproduction and policy efforts designed to augment student achievement. Spence enjoys reading, cycling and playing basketball. Upon completion of his PhD, he would like to become a researcher at a tier one research institution.

People's Choice: Oladapo Ogunbodede

Oladapo Ogunbodede headshot.

Oladapo Ogunbodede's 3MT Video Transcript

[Speaker: Graham Hammill] Our third presenter is Oladapo Ogunbodede, who's a student in mechanical and aerospace engineering. The title of his 3MT presentation is "Energy Efficient Drones: Lessons From Nature." Oladapo is, as you might expect from someone in mechanical and aerospace engineering, a fan of airplanes and motoring shows like Grand Tour, but he's also a fan of studying mythology, which points to his wide interests, I think. So, ready, set, pitch.

[Speaker: Oladapo Ogunbodede] Some say we are the pinnacle of evolution, the perfect animal. But is this assertion really true? If this assertion were true, the old study bio inspired design wouldn't exist. Bio inspired design has been applied in diverse fields, from design of cars to design of aircrafts, to how we dress, to even how we build our houses. Today, I'm here to talk about bio inspired design in drones. Yes, drones.

A couple of years ago mentioning the word drone painted an image of military personnel at the Pentagon controlling aircrafts remotely. Today, drones have become ubiquitous. They've been used in simple scenarios like taking a selfie, to complex scenarios like looking for a missing child in the wilderness. In all of this scenario, there is a common need to fly longer or cover more distance, or even do both. This is where my research comes in.

Fortunately, nature has shown that there is a better approach to flying than what is currently the norm. This approach is known as periodic locomotion. An example of a bird that exhibit this behavior is the albatross.

The albatross is a large migratory bird that covers over 100,000 miles in flight annually. This is way more than what our cars cover in six years, not to talk about the gas cost. Periodic locomotion in simple terms means that you use energy in a short amount of time to gain speed at night, and then glide onto a lower limit and speed of night is reached before flopping again. This is the albatross's evolutionary response to energy savings.

Can this be applied to drones? The answer is yes.

In my research, my aim is to use this concept to look for more energy efficient ways for drones to fly. Results for my research shows that using this method gives about 23 percent to 50 percent improvement over our current methods of flying.

What is the real world application of all of this, you may ask? I'm glad you asked. Less energy used is greener and will lead to millions of dollars in savings, as the current economic impact of drones in the U.S. is about $13 billion, and is projected to grow to $83 billion in the next couple of years.

Apart from the economic importance, think about delivering medications and other essential healthcare services to the 3.4 billion people in rural areas. And our drones that have learned to fly efficiently from nature can fly to these areas, delivering all these supplies, saving the lives of both the old and the young. Thank you.

[Audience applauding.]

PhD Program: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Advisor: Tarunraj Singh

Biography: From Owo, Nigeria, Oladapo Ogunbodede is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. His research is focused on finding ways to improve energy efficiency in drones by mimicking flight patterns in birds and marine mammals that exhibit powered-coasting locomotory behavior. Ogunbodede’s goal is to make drone flights greener and less costly. In his spare time, he enjoys photography, RC-airplanes and traveling. Upon graduation, Ogunbodede aspires to be a guidance, navigation and control engineer in the aerospace industry.