The Clock is Ticking: Three-Minute Thesis Competition Winners

Three-Minute Thesis winners Kylee Cullison and Christopher McDonald with runner-up Emma Pontes
From left: Three-Minute Thesis winners Kylee Cullison and Christian McDonald with runner-up Emma Pontes. (Photos courtesy of Josh Prezant)

Kaylie Cullison, an M.D./Ph.D. student, and Christian McDonald, a Ph.D. student in microbiology and immunology, at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, are the 2024 winners of the University of Miami’s Three-Minute Thesis Competition.

In the contest, seven graduate students from departments across the university had 180 seconds to describe the findings and importance of their thesis research projects to an audience of people without expertise in their fields. The competition prepares students to efficiently and effectively communicate their complex research to non-expert audiences.

Cullison is a part of a combined M.D./Ph.D. program that prepares students to conduct research as practicing physicians. Prior to enrolling in that program, she conducted research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brain.

Kylee Cullison

When she arrived at the university, she worked with her mentor, radiation oncologist Eric Mellon, M.D., Ph.D., co-leader of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Neurologic Cancer Site Disease Group. She credits him with inspiring her to pursue radiation oncology as her future medical specialty. His lab was working on predicting outcomes of glioblastoma, the most common brain cancer.

“That combined all my interests: MRI, neuroimaging and cancer,” said Cullison.

Glioblastoma patients typically receive daily treatment for six weeks, she explained. In her research project, Cullison and her team used MRI to image patients’ tumors each day that they received treatment to see if the imaging could help predict outcomes.

“Our working hypothesis originally was that they were maybe the trends were changing later during treatment, weeks four to six,” Cullison said. “We’ve actually seen that the prognostic changes are most predictive during weeks one to three, so that was very surprising.”

She hopes that the results will help researchers design clinical trials in which they intervene earlier and better individualize glioblastoma treatment. For now, “information is power,” as she said. Having a more detailed prognosis might help patients make decisions about how to spend their lives.

As an undergraduate, McDonald became fascinated with parasitology, the study of parasites and how they infect their hosts.

“I fell in love with how parasites are evading the immune system to infect us,” he said.

Student Chris McDonald at the Three-Minute Thesis competition
Christian McDonald

He went on to study in the lab of the late Enrique Mesri, Ph.D., a microbiologist and immunologist at the Miller School. McDonald was fascinated by the Kaposi’s sarcoma herpesvirus, one of only seven viruses known to cause cancer.

The goal of McDonald’s research was to clarify the conditions under which this virus might cause cancer in humans. Cancer caused by the virus is often found in parts of the body with low oxygen, or hypoxia.

“There’s this relationship between the three of them: hypoxia, cancer and the virus,” McDonald said. “We’re trying to understand what that relationship is.”

He and the team found the virus uses a particular protein, called eIF5B, to help it survive in hypoxic areas.

“But what’s really interesting is that we show that the virus is using it even when there are normal oxygen levels. What that tells us is the virus is creating a hypoxia-like environment,” McDonald said, adding that, when they silenced the gene that produces the protein, “the virus had a much harder time producing these cancer-like changes.”

Dr. Mesri passed away in 2022, but McDonald hopes to continue his research and legacy. Upon graduation, McDonald plans to seek a fellowship in clinical microbiology research.

Tags: medical education, student research, Three-Minute Thesis