Alex Boomgarden, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Biological Sciences, won the University of Notre Dame’s 2023 Shaheen Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT®) on Wednesday, March 1. The event — jointly sponsored by the Graduate School, the Meruelo Family Center for Career Development, and Graduate Student Government — was held on the stage of the Jordan Auditorium in the Mendoza College of Business.
The Shaheen 3MT® competition is open to all students of the Graduate School and challenges participants to explain their research in an accessible and concise manner to an audience of specialists and non-specialists alike — in three minutes or less. Competitors address a panel of judges in front of a live audience using a single static slide to support their presentation.
Boomgarden, whose faculty advisor is Professor Crislyn D’Souza-Schorey, was the fourth of eight finalists to present, and his first-place finish sent him home with the top prize of $2,000. A second-place prize of $1,500 went to Mariama S. Dampha (Global Affairs), and $1,000 to the People’s Choice winner, Isaac Angera (Chemistry and Biochemistry).
Other finalists who competed in the event included Sara Chan (Philosophy), Joseph Gonzales (Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering), Hannah Resnick (Classics), Ryan Posh (Mechanical Engineering), and Sabrina Volponi (Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences). Janeala Morsby (Chemistry and Biochemistry) was a competition finalist, but was unable to take part in the event.
Boomgarden’s presentation—titled “Looking for Cancer with CAPture”—argued that cancer researchers should be shifting their focus from curative medicine to preventive and personalized medicine. In that vein, Boomgarden’s research investigates microscopic calling cards in human blood known as tumor microvesicles, or TMVs. These tiny structures are released by cells that have become cancerous and contain proteins that can, when analyzed, give physicians detailed information about the location and severity of cancer present in the body. The challenge is that TMVs are notoriously difficult to isolate. Enter Boomgarden’s research. He is working on a novel technique he refers to as the “CAPture method” to tag and separate TMVs from other elements in the blood for downstream analysis. His method has been used to successfully capture TMVs identifying malignant melanoma, and he is currently working to test it as a diagnostic tool for other types of cancers. Bringing the argument full circle, Boomgarden explained to the audience that, using this method, a single drop of blood at an annual physical should, in the future, be all humans need to detect — and subsequently treat — cancer at very early, non-lethal stages.
Up next, Boomgarden will be eligible to represent Notre Dame as a contestant in both regional and national 3MT® competitions through the end of the year.