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Trainees & the Road to Independence: Wistar Convenes Inaugural Trainee Research Symposium 

February 27, 2023

On Friday, February 24, 2023, Wistar convened more than 175 postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate students from around Philadelphia for the very first Wistar Trainee Research Symposium at The Wistar Institute.

The symposium was developed and run by leaders of the Wistar Trainee Association, namely the association’s co-president, Pratik Bhojnagarwala, and co-president, Alexandra Indeglia, both of whom are graduate students at Wistar. They were assisted by fellow Association members Andrew Milcarek, Ilan Kirkel, Brennah Britten, SK Reiser, Giorgia Napoletani, and Bryan Manning. The purpose of the symposium was to give trainees—i.e., postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates—pursuing science in the Philadelphia area an opportunity to present their research and hear about research being done by their peers.

“There are so many research institutions in the Philly area, and they all do really great research, but we knew we needed an event that brings together trainees from all these institutions,” said Bhojnagarwala. “Having this kind of event allows the trainees to see what else is happening in the Philadelphia area and encourage new collaborations and relationships that will benefit all the trainees.”

Trainees Exchange Ideas

The symposium included six talks by graduate students and postdocs covering a variety of topics ranging from cancer gene expression to immunotherapy to opioid withdrawal. There were also two poster sessions during which 46 trainees, including undergraduate students, presented their research. This was a valuable opportunity for early-career trainees to gain experience presenting in a supportive, low-stress environment. The poster sessions also gave more seasoned trainees a chance to practice speaking about their research and to ask one another questions that could generate new ideas.

“This symposium gave me a chance to talk to others and learn what other science is happening,” said Sandra Deliard, a postdoctoral fellow at Wistar who presented a poster at the symposium. “Exchanging ideas might help another person or you yourself. You never know what might spark an idea or solve a problem you were having.”

Diverse Research and Researchers

One of the great strengths of the symposium was the diversity of perspectives and individuals it brought together from the Philadelphia area. Numerous institutions were represented, including University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, Rowan University, Swarthmore College, and St. Joseph’s University. Poster and presentation topics ranged from drug delivery to HIV, coronavirus, and even genes implicated in childhood obesity.

Moreover, the attendees themselves reflected the diversity that is gaining momentum across the field of science. Men and women were both well represented, and at any given time the conference hall was filled with individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The symposium organizers were pleased to have accomplished this aim while spotlighting the great work done at Wistar.

“We want to give undergraduate students, particularly from historically underrepresented areas, an opportunity to see what Wistar does and to show career opportunities for a science career,” said Indeglia. “Our goal is to show undergraduate students in the area that Philadelphia is a fantastic place to do scientific research for anyone interested in a masters or graduate degree.”

Support from Wistar

Ultimately, the symposium was for trainees, by trainees. However, it would not have been possible without support from Wistar faculty.

Kristy Shuda McGuire, dean of Biomedical Studies and leader of the Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center at Wistar, is the faculty advisor for the Wistar Trainee Association. Along with Maureen Murphy, deputy director, Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center at Wistar, McGuire helped the Association members to think through the logistics of putting together this event and to obtain the right permissions and supports they needed. McGuire sees the event as another opportunity to practice the leadership Bhojnagarwala, Indeglia, and the rest of trainee organizers are learning to demonstrate in their labs.

“It’s what the student-trainee transition is all about: for them to take ownership of research projects. But I love that they’re taking ownership of co-curricular activities outside of the lab, too,” she said.

One of the symposium’s two keynote speakers, Italo Tempera, associate director for Cancer Research Career Enhancement at the Ellen and Ronald Caplan Cancer Center at Wistar, emphasized the collaboration that was necessary to get the symposium off the ground. It’s this collaborative community that, after completing his postdoc at Wistar, brought him back to the institute—which is what he shared in his talk.

“You don’t go back to a restaurant where you have a bad experience,” he said. “The collaborative nature of Wistar when I was a postdoc was so important to my development, I was thrilled to come back and help support other postdocs the way I was supported.”

Engagement All Day Long

The final keynote was given by Scott Waldman, director of the Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at Thomas Jefferson University. His talk covered a signaling pathway he and his lab are exploring as a promising target for diagnosing, treating, and preventing colorectal cancer. The introduction made by one of his former students, David Zuzga, Associate Dean of Biomedical Studies at Wistar, perfectly encapsulated the ethos of the Wistar Trainee Research Symposium.

To introduce Waldman, Zuzga described what it was like having participated in Waldman’s lab meetings when Zuzga himself was a trainee. He described how Waldman encouraged everyone to ask questions and really interrogate ideas being presented in the meeting, no matter who was presenting them. And wouldn’t you know it—when Waldman finished his presentation, hands flew up around the room. The trainees, who had engaged with one another all day, were ready to keep engaging.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with how this day has gone,” said Bhonjagarwala. “For our first time, it met and exceeded all our expectations. We look forward to making it even better in the future.”

Inaugural Wistar Trainee Research Symposium