Erin Westman stands at the front of the room, pictured next to her slide, and presents her research to the audience.

September 22, 2014

McMaster postdoc is breaking down the wall of chemo side-effects

Postdoctoral fellow Erin Westman, biochemistry and biomedical sciences, will be competing against 99 young scholars, entrepreneurs and professionals from around the world at the Falling Walls Lab Finale in Berlin.

Westman was chosen from a group of 17 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who competed at McMaster’s inaugural Falling Walls Lab.

She will take her winning presentation – Breaking the Wall of Chemotherapy Consequences – to the international competition and conference in November.

“Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch! I'm thrilled to be returning to Germany, having visited briefly in 1998 as part of a German-language learning experience,” Westman says. “I am extremely proud to represent all of the diverse and accomplished scholars of McMaster.”

Her research focuses on the use of bacteria to help combat the often-debilitating side effects of chemotherapy drugs. Since some bacteria naturally produce chemotherapy drugs, Westman knew that drug producers must have a strategy to avoid being killed by their own drugs.

In future, she plans to copy these drug inactivation strategies into probiotic bacteria that can live in the human gut. This approach would leave the chemotherapy drug active in tumour sites, but turn off the effects of the drug in the gut, putting a stop to diarrhea and abdominal pain that accompany many chemotherapy treatments.

“Erin did an outstanding job communicating innovative and important research being conducted at McMaster,” says Doug Welch, Acting Associate Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies.

Graduate students, postdocs and faculty usually have no difficulty communicating with others within their own discipline. But competitions like Falling Walls and the Three Minute Thesis challenge researchers to go beyond their “jargon comfort zones” and condense and concentrate relevance and impact messages, says Welch.

“The competitions emphasize the need to continuously improve our ability to communicate what we do and why the world at-large should care about what we do.”

Westman agrees. She believes that scientists need to learn to express their ideas and explain their research in terms that everyone can understand.

“Research is most useful when it leaves the lab, and is used to inform people's health and lifestyle choices. The Falling Walls Lab challenged me to concisely explain the core concepts of my work, and the experience of preparing and presenting has helped me prioritize my next experiments by focusing on my essential goals,” she says.

As winner of Falling Walls, Westman receives travel and accommodation to the Falling Walls Lab Finale and Conference, November 8-9, in Germany.

The top three presenters at the Lab Finale will have a chance to present their research to a who’s-who of scientists, policy-makers, industry leaders and entrepreneurs attending the conference.

Second place went to Alexander Jarde, a postdoctoral fellow in obstetrics and gynecology, for his presentation “Breaking the Wall of Established ‘Truth’.”

Matthew Pachai, physchology, earned a third place nod for “Breaking the Wall of Human Face Identification.”

The other competitors were:

  • Richard Alsop, physics and astronomy – Breaking the Wall of Unforeseen Drug Side-Effects
  • Reza Aria, business administration – Breaking the Wall of Chronic Disease Self-Support System
  • Omid Beiraghi, chemistry – Breaking the Wall of Hidden Bacterial Infections
  • Robert Cockcroft, physics and astronomy – Breaking the Wall of Ancient Egyptian Astronomy
  • Brock Dubbels, computing and software – Breaking the Wall of Aging and Dementia
  • Wade Genders, civil engineering ­– Breaking the Wall of Taboo Conversations
  • Maren Heimhalt, chemistry ­– Breaking the Wall of Antibiotic Design
  • René Heller, physics and astronomy ­– Breaking the Wall of Living Around the Sun
  • Anthony Nazarov, neuroscience ­– Breaking the Wall of Research Participation
  • Sarah Roger, English and Cultural Studies – Breaking the Wall of Reading in the Digital Age
  • Anthony Sandre, global health – Breaking the Wall of Solid Pharmaceutical Analysis
  • Mathangi Selvamenan, neuroscience – Breaking the Wall of Language Learning
  • Nazia Sohani, global health – Breaking the Wall of Postpartum Hemorrhage
  • Alva Tang, psychology – Breaking the Wall of Shyness and Sociability

Judges for the event included:

  • Jill Axisa, executive director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the Provost;
  • Glen Grunwald, the director of Athletics and Recreation;
  • Ni Jadon, a senior project manager and international liaison officer in the Office of International Affairs;
  • Maureen MacDonald, professor and associate chair of undergraduate studies in the department of kinesiology; and
  • Justin Pollicarpio, manager of student entrepreneurship in the Office of Student Affairs.

Nick Bontis, associate professor in the DeGroote School of Business, acted as Master of Ceremonies for the more than 70 people who attended the event held at the University Club on Wednesday.