Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Winning! How Young Academics Are Making History at Falling Walls

Edmonton Lab winners (from left to right) Nermeen Youssef, Zach Storms, and Diana Martinez.

Back in September I had the pleasure of attending the Falling Walls Edmonton Lab where I got to take in the incredible research being done here at the U of A. In fact I found it so interesting I just had to do a post on it which you should check out. Seriously do it, this event blew my mind. It played out like this. 1 night, 20 participants, 3 minutes, 3 slides, a panel of judges, and 1 awe-inspired crowd. It reminded me of TEDtalks on speed and in the end we sent not just the top 1 but the top 3 to Berlin to compete in the Falling Walls Lab Finale. So off went Zach Storms, Nermeen Youssef, and Diana Martinez Tobon to present their work and represent our awesome University back on November 8th. This time it was 1 day, 100 finalists, 3 minutes, 3 slides, and a panel of judges so prestigious it was headed by Dr. Carl-Henrik Heldin (FYI… he’s the chairman of the Nobel Foundation). Sounds intimidating? I think so. But as I’ve heard, Zach, Nermeen, and Diana did us proud. In fact, Nermeen placed 2nd in the finals!! As a result she got to present her work at the Falling Walls conference the following day. THIS meant presenting to a crowd full of many of today’s greatest minds, including Nobel Prize winners! But I’ll tell you a little more about that in a bit so you can hear about it from the people who were actually there.

So what does it take to get international recognition for your work? Well I was fortunate enough to have the chance to ask Nermeen and Diana just that.

A little bit of background

Image courtesy of Falling Walls

Nermeen Youssef, originally a pharmacist from Cairo, is no stranger to academia having taught University courses in Egypt before becoming a PhD student here. She is currently a 5th year Pharmacology grad student working on using blue light to stimulate the fat cells of a diabetes patient to produce insulin. She applied to the U of A because of the strong team of researchers at the Alberta Diabetes Institute and the support of the pharmacology program. In fact, Nermeen’s supervisor is a huge “driving force” in her lab. Her research will revolutionize insulin treatment for type 1 diabetes. Right now, patients have to either inject insulin several times a day or have insulin-producing cells implanted into their bodies, both of which have their own complications. Her research would do away with repetitive needles and immunosuppressant drugs and allow for tighter blood sugar regulation. When she’s not in the lab she’s a “library rat” in Rutherford or enjoying the open, sunny skies of spring and summer on campus. She saw an ad for the Falling Walls Edmonton Lab that piqued her interest and a couple days later her supervisor sent an email encouraging his students to participate. That email was all it took to convince her that this was “destiny” and something she needed to do. When she heard her name being called in the top 3 at the Edmonton event she felt ecstatic and couldn’t believe she had made it!  

Diana Martinez Tobon is a 2nd year Chemical Engineering student working towards her PhD. Her project is focused on enhancing the enzymatic degradation of one of the most common types of biodegradable plastic. Despite the advent of biodegradable plastics, plastic accumulation is still a huge environmental issue because even biodegradable plastics take too long to break down. However, Diana believes the “use of biodegradable plastics is a promising option” and is working on a solution to speed up the break down process. Her motivation to participate in the Falling Walls Lab was to “break her own wall” of public speaking. She was also super interested in learning about other research being done at the U of A. Diana was surprised and “so happy and excited” when she realized she was going to Berlin.

Falling Walls Lab

Image courtesy of Falling Walls

The finals took place in Berlin which, hey funny enough, was around the time for the anniversary of the falling of the Berlin wall. And like I said, there were 100 participants from all over the globe presenting over the course of a day. Exhausting and intense as that may sound, the atmosphere was buzzing and everyone had an edge of both “competition” but “genuine curiosity” as Nermeen put it. Despite the diversity in the ideas and issues addressed, ranging from Breaking the Walls of environmental issues to communication technologies, all were overseen and evaluated by the same panel of judges. As the day drew to a close and they were announcing the top 3 Young Innovators of 2014, Nermeen realized that she had placed 2nd when she saw the U of A rep, Mara Simmonds, getting incredibly excited and looking right at her. This humbling experience took a few moments to register with Nermeen as her shock quickly ripened into glee. Nermeen told me that this kind of experience is what keeps you going, it gives you a globally recognized green light and strengthens your convictions about the importance of your work. And with that Nermeen, along with Tom Bieling of Germany and Dyllon Garth Randall of South Africa, would go on to present the next day at the Falling Walls conference. When you watch the presentations of Tom and Dyllon (you can watch the videos of the top 3 here, all well worth viewing) you can’t help but feel a bit of pride that work done at the U of A was among these top 3.

The Big Leagues- Falling Walls Conference

Image courtesy of Falling Walls

The conference itself was an amazing event. Attendees and speakers included Nobel Prize winners, government officials, and many other brilliant researchers, CEOs, and creative thinkers. To Nermeen and Diana and the other fellow Lab participants, the event was a great opportunity to meet people and network. However, it was also just an incredible “celebration of accomplishments”. Because the audience was made up of people with varied areas of expertise, each talk was given so that all educated lay persons alike could follow. Hmm so that means there is a talk given by Stefan Hell, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, that I can actually follow ? Awesome! But can you imagine what it would be like to be sitting in that actual audience? As Diana put it, she was “just amazed to be in the same place with really prestigious scientists and world leaders and to be able to hear their talks”. And yes, you can hear (and see) them too! The videos can be found on here. After the finals-induced coma, it’s nice to hear uplifting and exciting innovations happening all over the world.

25th Anniversary of the Falling of the Berlin Wall

Image courtesy of Deutsche Welle

To top it all off, if you were an attendee of the Falling Walls event then you likely got to witness the festivities of the 25th anniversary falling of the Berlin wall as well. What Diana really liked about Berlin was the “the combination of a modern city with so much history” and with all the events surrounding the anniversary, Berlin did not disappoint. There were many screens depicting the historic falling of the Berlin Wall and the Lichtgrenze ceremony used illuminated balloons to represent the storied and now removed wall. And to commemorate the fall of that wall, each of those hopeful balloons were released on November 9th. There was a special atmosphere surrounding the Lichtgrenze ceremony (i.e., the border of light) and to witness it in person was a lifetime event that neither Diana nor Nermeen will forget.

----About the Author


Hi, my name is Shannon and I’m here to provide you with a YouAlberta graduate student perspective. I am currently in the last year of my degree and have (quite) a few years of experience on the U of A campus as both an undergrad and graduate student.

I am excited to show off our student experience both here at the U of A and in the broader Edmonton community. We have a dynamic campus culture full of events, groups, and just day to day awesomeness. My passions include science and getting others involved in science related activities, volleyball, hiking, and camping. I’m also full of tips on how to have fun on a student budget. Over the next year I hope I can show you how to make the most of your U of A experience because there’s so much more to school than classes and expensive textbooks!


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