The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine hosts an annual research symposium both to support the college’s mission of educating a diverse population of professional and post-graduate students preparing for careers in veterinary medicine, biomedical sciences, and public health and to showcase the research of its graduate and training programs. 

The daylong event features two poster sessions, two oral presentation sessions, and two keynote speakers, followed by dinner and an awards ceremony.

Social determinants of human and animal health

This year’s symposium’s theme was “Social Determinants of Human and Animal Health.” Social determinants are health factors from working and living conditions. 

"The World Health Organization now states that social determinants can be more important than healthcare or lifestyle in influencing health." said S. Ansar Ahmed, associate dean of research and graduate studies. 

"Thankfully, we are living longer – mostly thanks to vaccination, better hygiene, education, and so on – but we're living sicker. We're living longer but sicker. There's lots of chronic diseases and lots of challenges ahead of us, and understanding social determinants will help us understand how one could reduce it, mitigate it, prevent it, and do policy interventions which would be helpful," said Ahmed. 

The symposium featured two keynote speakers, LeeAnn Bailey and Melinda Beck. 

LeeAnn Bailey is the chief of the integrated networks branch of the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In this role, she manages, develops, and assesses strategies for enhancing the integration and dissemination of diversity training, women’s health, and sexual and gender minority efforts within and across NCI, as well as within the scientific community and underserved communities through NCI-supported networks. She also identifies and leverages opportunities to address unmet needs in cancer health disparities research. Bailey delivered a speech entitled “Addressing Social Determinants of Health Through Research and Training.” 

“We know that the research enterprise is strengthened when the intellect and the talent of people with diverse perspectives, backgrounds and skill sets are applied to complicated biomedical problems, like cancer, like comorbidities, as well as a variety of other disease entities,” said Bailey. 

Melinda Beck, the interim chair and a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, delivered a speech called “Obesity and Influenza: A Public Health Crisis.”

In Beck’s laboratory, researchers study the relationship between host nutrition and the immune response to infectious disease, including an ongoing clinical study of the mechanisms that impair influenza vaccine response in obese adults compared with healthy weight adults. More recently, Dr. Beck’s work has expanded to focus on the intersection between a noncommunicable disease, obesity, and a communicable disease, influenza.

Mastering communication skills

This year, residents, master’s and Ph.D. students from both Virginia Tech and the college’s sister campus at the University of Maryland delivered a total of 70 presentations. The symposium gives students the opportunity to hone their communication skills as they present their projects and field questions from the veterinary college community and from the judges who select the top presentations. 

These skills will serve students well in their future careers as they describe their work to the public, their fellow scientists, and those who may fund their research.  

For Esther Yang, a third year medical oncology resident at the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center, presenting a poster has been a great way to connect with people from across the college. 

"I don't think making posters comes naturally. It helped me to research how to present in a clear way where it's appealing to the audience and presenters. Communicating science is an art form that I had to learn. This is the platform for that, where we talk to people from different departments, not just oncology — communicating to different specialties has been a rewarding experience,” said Yang. 

Third-year Ph.D. student Jatia Mills agrees that presenting research to a new audience is an exciting challenge. 

“I love finding different people from different fields who have no idea what I'm talking about — I can break it down to just the simplest of ways, and that's always fun to do,” said Mills. 

Many students at the symposium are new or first-time presenters, but Mills has presented her research at several conferences. She credits her confidence and skill in part to taking a graduate course at the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science

Award winners

Awards were presented for the best posters and oral presentations in addition to awards recognizing faculty research efforts.

Outstanding Poster Presentations

S. Ansar Ahmed and Holly Morrison at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.
Outstanding Poster Presentations: Holly Morrison. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.
S. Ansar Ahmed and Lauren Panny at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.
Outstanding Poster Presentations: Lauren Panny. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Christina Chuong 

Vaccine strategies employing dual attenuation mechanisms in the form of a chimeric backbone and the addition of interferon gamma (IFNγ) demonstrates improved vaccine safety for mice resulting in reduced post-vaccination side effects and limited capacity for virus replication. We will identify the pathways that are activated by our IFNγ-expressing vaccine to understand the mechanism explaining the increased attenuation. Furthermore, we will develop a human IFNγ-expressing vaccine to explore its’ application for human health and for working against other pathogens. 

Jing Ju 

My project is to investigate the novel mechanism of EphA4 receptors in regulating immune cell-mediated arteriogenesis following ischemic stroke. We hypothesize that EphA4 receptors suppress peripheral immune cell recruitment and function to limit pial collateral remodeling, cerebral blood flow restoration and tissue protection following cerebrovascular occlusion. 

Holly Morrison

In this work, we show that NF-κB -inducing kinase (NIK) is a critical regulator of intestinal epithelial cell regeneration. During colorectal cancer, NIK attenuation results in the accumulation of mature epithelial cells, which are more susceptible to mutation and transformation. 

Lauren Panny

Utilizing LC/MS/MS and other proteomic techniques we can determine host interactors of the E1 glycoprotein of Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. We can then target these interactions with small molecule inhibitors to find potential antivirals and better understand alphavirus replication. 

Outstanding Oral Presentations

S. Ansar Ahmed and Sarah Khatibzabeh at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.
Outstanding Oral Presentation: Sarah Khatibzabeh. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.
S. Ansar Ahmed and Hsin-Wen Liang at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.
Outstanding Oral Presentations: Hsin-Wen Liang. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Sarah Khatibzabeh

Biofilms are coating layers made by bacteria to protect them from being killed by antibiotics or the host immune system, thereby causing infection persistence, complications, and, in some cases, mortality in horses with orthopedic infections. Our objective was to determine whether equine bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stromal cells (MSC), which have been demonstrated to kill free-floating bacteria, can disrupt biofilms and kill indwelling live bacteria of two orthopedic infectious agents (S. aureus and E. coli) in a laboratory model. MSC demonstrated some ability to reduce biofilms. Specifically, MSC reduced the coating layer of both bacterial types and killed live S. aureus bacteria at one timepoint but performed differently on S. aureus versus E. coli biofilms. 

Hsin-Wen Liang 

Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a public health threat that has developed resistance to the current and previous antibiotic treatments. To address the urgent need for novel therapeutics to combat drug-resistant N. gonorrhoeae, we screened an FDA-approved drug library in search of drugs that possess anti-gonococcal activity. Auranofin was identified as a potent antibacterial agent for N. gonorrhoeae both in vitro and in vivo, which indicates that it warrants further investigation for development as a new anti-N. gonorrhoeae therapeutic drug.

S. Ansar Ahmed and Kevin Lahmers at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.

2023 Zoetis Award for Research Excellence

Kevin Lahmers, clinical associate professor of anatomic pathology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. 

S. Ansar Ahmed and Joanne Tuohy at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.

2023 Outstanding Early Career Research Faculty Award

Joanne Tuohy, associate professor of surgical oncology at the Animal Cancer Care and Research Center. 

S. Ansar Ahmed and Michelle Theus at the 2023 Research Symposium Awards.

2023 Distinguished Research Faculty Award

Michelle Theus, associate professor of molecular biology and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathology, co-director of the TMBH graduate program, and director of the Center for Neurotrauma Research.

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing