Students applaud winner
Selina Vong's fellow CU Denver students and competitors in an inaugural dual-campus thesis competition (Lucas Ortiz, center, and Cecilia Clark, right) applaud as she accepts the top prize.

Performing with purpose: Tense thesis match propels students’ future

Win stuns prize-taker in research showcase spotlighting innovative graduate work

January 31, 2019

Selina Vong never expected to win. Joining a competition that pitted her, the lone master’s student, against five PhD candidates was about learning and preparing herself for the future.

But when the University of Colorado Denver chemistry student took the stage in the Bushnell Auditorium on the Anschutz Medical Campus on Jan. 25, she did the unthinkable – she rose to the top of an accomplished lineup of future doctors and scientists, describing the value of her research and netting the prize.

Dean Engleke applauds
David Engelke, PhD, dean of the Graduate School, applauds after a presentation. The dean provided a $1,000 cash-prize incentive.

And she did it in 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

Timed match tests students on selling their research

“I’m absolutely surprised,” Vong said, shortly after winning the First Annual Intercampus Three Minute Talks. Vong’s feat sends her to a state and regional competition, both firsts for the sponsoring Graduate School. It also put a $1,000 reward in her pocket. “I never imagined beating PhD students as an MS student,” she said.

The tense intercampus battle, which included the top three winners of individual campus competitions in November, drew rapt attention from the judges and the audience, both for the powerful content and for the ticking clock.

“There are a lot of interesting projects here that I think have potential to make a big impact in the future.”

– James Parrett, volunteer judge, CU Innovations

Here’s a snapshot of CU Denver student research projects:

Blindness-preventing contact lens

Selina Vong speaks
Selina Vong delivers her timed talk, never looking back at the clock, which ticks down from 3 minutes. Vong ultimately won the contest, netting the top prize for her innovative contact-lens research.

Selina Vong
Home state: Colorado
Program: Chemistry

Problem: Corneal melting (keratolysis), a disease caused by the overexpression of an enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase (MMP), can rob people of their sight. Activated by binding with zinc ions in the eye, MMP then eats away at the corneal tissue, potentially resulting in total blindness.

Solution: Vong and her team in the Lee Lab: Laboratory for NanoMedicine know that a molecule called dipicolylamine (DPA) acts as a zinc chelator (a substance that can form several bonds to a single metal ion), meaning it could effectively remove zinc from the eye.

Her team’s goal: Create contact lenses coated with DPA, eradicating the zinc and thereby deactivating MMP. While still not a cure, the lenses could help keep blindness at bay.

Impact: Corneal melting affects some patients after eye surgery (e.g. cataract) or with certain systemic diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis). Past treatments have been more invasive, some even involving a needle, Vong said.

“I can tell you for a fact that if a needle were pointed toward my eye, I wouldn’t keep it open. These contact lenses are a noninvasive, more-localized approach to treating corneal melting. This is my hope for the future.”

Treating cerebral-palsy with a therapy robot

Cecilia Clark, student, presents
Cecilia Clark gestures while explaining her robotic research. Hand gestures and voice inflection were aptly used by students, whose challenge was to explain the science and benefits of their theses to the layperson in no more than 3 minutes. One student finished with 3 seconds left.

Cecilia (Niki) Clark
Home state: Arkansas
Program: Bioengineering

Problem: Caused by a brain injury before, during or after birth, cerebral palsy (CP) is the most prevalent pediatric motor disability. With no cure, repetitive therapy focused on reprogramming non-injured neurons to accommodate and recover some of the lost functions remains a primary treatment. Therapy is particularly critical in the first five years of life, when the neurons are most susceptible to change.

But a provider gap exists.

Solution: “This is where my research comes in,” said Clark, who works in the Socially Assistive Robotics lab. Clark is designing a first-ever autonomous therapy robot specifically for children with complex CP, a project that involves multi-disciplinary collaboration, from Computer Science and Engineering to Early Childhood Education.

Impact: Cerebral palsy affects more than one in 500 children. Through robotic assistance, patients in that critical early period can receive increased therapy to help reach life-altering goals. “My work wields innovative insights in machine-learning algorithms to increase exposure to clinical intervention and hopefully improve quality of life for all of these children.”

Student Lucas Ortiz talks
Lucas Ortiz explains his research focused on simplifying fire-risk assessment models in order to save property and lives.

Fighting wildfires, saving lives with mathematical formulas

Lucas Ortiz
Home state: Florida
Program: Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Problem: Fire-management experts often face a formidable task: deciding whether to shut down an entire power grid to prevent a massive wildfire. They often must make this decision every five minutes. While a complicated computer model exists for assessing wildfire risk, it can take hours to get the answer.

Solution: Ortiz’s research focuses on new methods to simply fire-risk forecasting, looking more at relationships than at the many individual pieces of data related to a blaze’s probability. “By using those relationships and building a simple statistical model, you reduce the computational time dramatically, to minutes, or even seconds, instead of hours.”

Impact: Wildfires are prevalent and destructive. Last year’s particularly deadly California fire season took more than 80 lives alone. His work, Ortiz said, can give experts “the power to make the right decision, potentially saving lives, forest and property.”

“It’s very valuable to be able to articulate your research in a succinct manner to someone to garner interest. It’s something that’s going to benefit them as researchers throughout their career.”

– James Parrett, volunteer judge, CU Innovations

More photos from the event:

Shawna Cox, assistant dean
Shawna Cox, PhD, assistant dean of the Graduate School, looks back at the audience. Earlier, she explained the rules: Only one static slide, 3 minutes and “not one second more,” and no rapping, singing or citing poetry.
Fellow students
Fellow contenders watch as students present research that could change the future.
Audience member
An audience member looks back and smiles during a judging break.