Chemistry and Biochemistry

Chemistry Students Represent at College 3MT Competition

Posted: Mar 06, 2015

Two of Dr. Woolley’s students, Mukul Sonker and Jayson Pagaduan, received honorable mention at the 3MT competition for the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences on February 20, 2015.

3MT, or 3 Minute Thesis, is a relatively new program at BYU where graduate students are given three minutes to explain their theses and win the interest of a diverse audience.  The 3MT format was developed by the University of Queensland to help students in all fields learn to communicate complex research in a simple way.  “Most of the people attending do not come from a science background,” explained Sonker. “It makes it even harder to explain your research as you cannot use any of the technical jargon.”   For both Sonker and Pagaduan, who work with Dr. Woolley in the field of microfluidics, eliminating technical explanations proved very difficult.  

Pagaduan’s research involves making small plastic devices that can detect disease markers in a single-drop sample—a practice called “lab-on-a-chip.”  Disease markers, or biomarkers, are certain biomolecules in our body that can indicate a disease or an existing condition.  Sonker also uses biomarkers in his research, studying small samples of blood to predict Preterm birth, or PTB.  PTB is the most common complication of pregnancy and affects around one out of eight births in the United States.  “At present,” said Sonker, “there are no easily available clinical methods to predict PTB at a stage where therapeutic interventions are still possible to delay delivery.”  Sonker’s work involves developing a microchip, similar in principle to a pregnancy stick, that can analyze biomarkers in a mother’s blood and predict PTB.

Both students feel passionate about using chemistry to find solutions for universal problems.  “I actually got the lowest grade in my high school chemistry classes,” confessed Pagaduan, who grew up in the Phillipines. “But I had a keen interest in chemistry because everything we do involves chemistry.”   Despite his high school grades, he decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at BYU-Hawaii.  “I had superb teachers who made learning challenging yet fun,” he said. “They were also the motivators for me to go to graduate school instead of medical school.”

Sonker did his undergraduate studies in pharmaceutical chemistry in his home country of India.  However, he knew that he wanted to be involved with the research at BYU. “When I got accepted,” he said, “I was filled with joy and ecstasy because now I could lay my hands on all the high tech equipment and learn about cutting edge research happening at BYU.”  Sonker chose to study PTB because it affects so many families across the world.  “I believe I am helping make the world a better place, in my own way,” he said.

Sonker and Pagaduan agreed that participating in 3MT was a valuable experience.  “I learned that public speaking can be fun,” said Pagaduan, who will be graduating this semester and starting his postdoctoral research at Johns Hopkins University. 

 Sonker plans to enter next year’s competition and is excited to apply what he has learned from this experience and to perform even better. “I realized that you can make people pay attention to your research if you make it interesting enough,” he said.   

By Jordan Wright

Photos courtesy of Austin Gillett and Mukul Sonker