Researchers put on the clock

As part of last week’s Postdoctoral Research Forum, created by the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, a communication exercise modeled after the Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) was held for Western’s postdoctoral scholars. Winners at the competition were:



Mosumi Majumder

Erasing Breast Cancer by Early Detection

First place

Majumder, a geneticist interested in what goes on inside a cancer cell, has discovered clones within lab-created COX-2 expressing cells (cells responsible for the growth of certain tumors). These clones proved the presence of cancer stem cells, induced by COX-2, in which Majumder found a micro-RNA.

When confronting a normal tumor, treatments like radiation, chemotherapy and surgery may remove a tumor while still leaving behind these stem cells. It’s like weeding a garden, only to have the weeds grow back because the roots were not properly removed, Majumder explained.

In order to target the root of the tumor, you must target the cancer stem cells.

Referencing more than 5,000 publications discussing how to target cancer stem cells, Majumder found these cancer stem cell contain micro-RNA, that produces thousands of copies without detectable proteins. RNA, however, is detectable by a simple blood test.

Once the test is complete, and a patient’s results come back with high levels of this micro-RNA, doctors can personalize treatment to inhibit its growth and, therefore, the growth of the cancer tumor as well.

Majumder has already found this method is effective in a laboratory setting.

The next step is looking to test blood from patients at the London Regional Cancer Program and, potentially, targeting treatment for those who have detectable high levels of micro-RNA. The medication to target the RNA would work alongside other treatment methods for cancer, enhancing treatment and prognosis.

While this is being tested only for breast cancer, there is potential to use this kind of treatment for other types of cancer.






Preetam Janakirama

A plant-specific HUA2-LIKE (HULK) gene family in Arabidopsis thaliana is essential for development

Second Place

In Arabidopsis thaliana, a small, flowering plant native to Europe and Asia, the HUA2 gene regulates FLC and AGAMOUS, key regulators of flowering time and reproductive development. The function of HUA2 is unknown, although it may affect RNA processing.

While HUA2 is broadly expressed, plants lacking HUA2 function have only moderately reduced plant stature, leaf initiation rate and flowering time. To better understand HUA2 activity, and test if redundancy with similar genes underlies the absence of strong phenotypes in HUA2 mutant plants, Janakirama’s lab identified three additional HUA2 LIKE (or HULK) genes in A. thaliana.

These genes form two clades – HUA2/HULK1 and HULK2/HULK3 – with members broadly conserved in both vascular and non-vascular plants. However, the HULK family is plant specific.

As opposed to single HUA2 mutants, plants with successively more HULK genes inactivated had increasingly dramatic phenotypes, and plants homozygous for loss-of-function mutations in all four HULK genes could not be recovered. Compound mutants displayed a range of reproductive, embryonic and post-embryonic abnormalities.

Depending on the HULK mutant combination, opposing effects on flowering time were apparent, although HUA2 acted epistatically to cause early flowering.

Janakirama’s studies, which include characterization of HULK expression patterns and subcellular localization, suggest that the HULK genes encode conserved nuclear factors with partially redundant, yet essential functions in regulating diverse genetic pathways in plants.



Robbie Halonen

The Dynamical Evolution of Circumstellar Disks Surrounding Classical Be Stars

Third Place

Halonen’s group studies astrophysical discs – any type of disc structure in space. The group wants to understand how these structures originate and how they evolve over time. One of the important aspects of their research is a desire to learn where we came from and how the universe originated.

“If we want to know where the earth came from, and how our solar system originated, we have to find out how that disk of material that originally formed our solar system worked,” Halonen said.

In astronomy, a lot of what you study, like star and planetary formation, you cannot observe directly. Halonen’s group is studying an object called a classical BE star, a massive star, about 10-20 times bigger than the sun, much hotter much brighter, surrounded by a thin disc of gas. A relatively simple system, it makes for a great laboratory for disc physics in space. Halonen and his group run computational models of these systems and compare what they get to observations, allowing them to determine a lot of the key properties of these discs. Halonen has designed a Monte Carlo code – called that because it uses random numbers and named after the casino in Monaco. It uses random numbers to simulate the journey of billions of photons – particles of light – as they exit the star, pass through the disc, bounce around in the disc and eventually exit the disc and wind up in telescopes. Doing this allows the group to recreate a theoretical picture what they expect these objects to look like.