Biology Students Present Research at Max Planck Society

Keyla Payano & Paul Espiritu
May 15, 2019

Senior Biology majors Paul Espiritu and Keyla Payano presented research at the Max Planck Florida Institute’s 2019 Sunposium in West Palm Beach, Florida from March 4-6. Paul and Keyla’s research, which they developed with the mentorship of Biological Sciences Professor and Associate Dean Laura Schramm, Ph.D., examines TFIIIB alterations in gliomas. Together, Paul, Keyla, and Dr. Schramm identified TFIIIB as a factor that reduces life expectancy in male patients.

Under Dr. Schramm’s supervision, Paul and Keyla used a bioinformatics approach to analyze and predict the deregulation of the multi-subunit complex TFIIIB. TFIIIB is specifically deregulated in human cancers that originate in the brain, and because of its large size, little research has been published about the transcription factor.  The St. John’s team hypothesized that TFIIIB could be used as a biomarker to identify whether it is the most prevalent alteration in human brain tumors in the United States. They analyzed sequenced datasets revealing that TFIIIB is altered in 17 percent of patients with low-grade gliomas. Further data analysis allowed the team to determine the median survival of patients with TFIIIB gliomas.

Paul and Keyla also presented with Dr. Schramm at the Metropolitan Association of College and University Biologists (MACUB) Research Conference in October 2018 and earned second place in Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Biotechnology.

After completing an internship at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai during summer 2018, Keyla became more interested in seeking out research opportunities. “I began to realize the importance of research on patient outcomes and reached out to Dr. Schramm after looking up her research interests and publications,” she said.

Dr. Schramm suggested Keyla find a peer research partner, and Keyla recruited Paul, who was also interested in research opportunities. Both took Dr. Schramm’s Environmental Chemistry course and felt they learned a lot from her teaching and mentorship. “We had such vivid conversations about the course material,” said Paul. “Having worked with Dr. Schramm on research for two semesters has incredibly strengthened our knowledge of biological research.”

“Many students don’t get the opportunity to do research with faculty as undergraduates,” said Keyla. “Dr. Schramm not only gave us the opportunity to work with her, but she also encouraged us to attend conferences and nurtured our professional development at every turn. Without someone to show you the way forward, it’s much easier to miss out on opportunities.”

At Dr. Schramm’s suggestion, Keyla and Paul printed their poster on fabric through Spoonflower, and the unique poster format drew attendees to their presentation. “People kept wanting to touch the poster,” said Paul. The fabric poster was also easier for them to transport and more ecologically-friendly than paper.

Overall, participation in the conference allowed them to see the impact of scientific research beyond St. John’s. “Our time in Florida was unforgettable,” said Paul. “We were able to spend every moment immersed in multiple branches of science. This endeavor made us feel a part of something much greater than either of us. We certainly thank all the people who allowed us to voyage much further than the front gate of St. John’s with our scientific research.”

Keyla, who hails from the Bronx, NY, plans to attend medical school. In addition to her internship at Mount Sinai, Keyla interned at Columbia University Medical Center during the summer 2017. She minors in Chemistry and is a member of the Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society. In May 2018, she earned the Biology Certificate of Achievement from St. John’s. Keyla serves as fundraising chair for the Watson Pre-Health Honor Society, as well a tutor for the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), and a St. John’s College Peer Mentor. Keyla is active in the R.I.S.E. Network (Reach, Inspire, Succeed, Empower). She volunteers with the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

Paul, originally from Richmond Hill, NY, will be applying to dental schools next year. He serves as treasurer for the Watson Pre-Health Honor Society and is vice president of the Pre-Dental Society. This summer, he will participate in the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine Discover Dental School: Summer Scholars' Program. Like Keyla, he is involved in R.I.S.E. Both Keyla and Paul will participate in the St. John’s Campus Ministry Plunge Program in Lourdes, France during summer 2019.