Filipino researcher Sophia Raine Hernandez won second place at the Researcher Grand Prix in Sweden, where she presented in exactly four minutes a way to defeat the parasite that causes malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Using CRISPR-Cas9, a tool that enables researchers to edit parts of an organism’s genetic instructions, Hernandez proposed removing parts of the parasite known as Plasmodium to find its weaknesses.
“[This] will help with the development of interventions, vaccines and treatments for malaria “, said Hernandez during the last heat of the Grand Prix on November 25 in Stockholm.
The Researcher Grand Prix is a competition among researchers in Sweden who can “make the most understandable, captivating and inspiring presentation of their research” in just four minutes.
Although she had more time, Hernandez said she would have refrained from adding more to her presentation. “Maybe I should even remove some parts just so I could talk at a better pace. I think less is more in science communication,” she explained.
Hernandez presented her project as a doctoral student in molecular biology at Umeå University with the title “Tackling Malaria by Looking at the Biology of Parasites”, which she started in August 2020.
“It is extremely important for researchers to communicate science to the public because everyone benefits from the progress of science. I think it’s the best way to fight misinformation or fake news, she says.
Hernandez, a graduate of the Molecular Biology and Biotechnology program at the University of the Philippines, began his presentation with a reference to his childhood dream of becoming a superhero ー and becoming a scientist instead.
“Scientists, like superheroes, work with humans to help defeat villains such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites,” she told the judges at the competition.
For Hernandez, the arch-enemy is Plasmodium due to the parasite’s ability to make people really sick and kill about 500,000 people a year in various places like Asia, Africa and Central America. ”
The World Health Organization has noted that malaria “remains a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa”, With over 260,000 deaths among children under the age of five annually. The first vaccine ever against malaria (Plasmodium falciparum) was approved for use only on October 6, 2021, after 30 years of research and development.
Although the task of communicating science is “definitely scary,” Hernandez stressed that it is not impossible.
“Because there are so many concepts and jargon for researchers[,] it may feel like it would be impossible to make people understand but I think everyone has the ability to appreciate and understand science, she said.
“We just have to find the balance between making it available while being accurate and not overly simplistic.”
When Hernandez came up with his winning superhero story, Hernandez recalled a lesson from one of her coaching sessions with Anders Sahlman, a science communication coach: that a great way to present or communicate your research is to “make it relatable to people.”
“I thought people would relate to this desire [to become a superhero] and… to end it with ‘scientists as modern superheroes’ would also encourage people to develop a greater interest in science or even consider becoming a scientist, ”she said.
Before joining the competition, Hernandez had been recognized for her work Plasmodium 2019 at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK, one of the premier centers for genomic discovery. Her undergraduate degree also involved studying the sex-specific immune response of mice to immunization with malaria proteins.
“I had always been interested in infectious diseases, not only because of their global health effects but also because of infectious diseases, such as Plasmodium which causes malaria, has very interesting biology, ”said Hernandez.
While still in the very early stages of her project, Hernandez said she hopes her research “contributes more to our understanding of the parasite, how the parasite behaves, what genes it needs or uses or [are] important for its survival. ”
Hernandez was among the seven finalists from the regional heat in Umeå and two others online in November last year.
First prize in the Grand Prix went to communications and media researcher Michael Bosetta at Lund University for his study of “fake news” on Twitter and emotions in political ads on Facebook. Louise Karlsson at Halmstad University won third prize for her research on stress-related diseases.