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Student from Eritrea Finds Success Researching Obesity in Women

Lidya Gebreyesus

With Lidya Gebreyesus’ passion for studying female health, it was fitting that she was one of two women to win prizes at the Three Minute Thesis competition sponsored recently by the Graduate Student Executive Council and the College of Graduate Health Sciences at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Gebreyesus is a second-year student in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. She moved to Memphis from the northeast African country of Eritrea in 2021 to study at UTHSC. The culture shock of moving to a new country impacted Gebreyesus at first, but she was able to form connections to make it easier.

“People are friendly when you reach out and say hi to them,” she said. “I started meeting people who relate to my challenges. They’ve helped me grow, and hopefully I’ve done the same for them.”

Gebreyesus has family living in Tennessee, which is what initially drew her to the state. When she started looking into graduate schools, she said there were multiple factors that led to her to UTHSC.

“I was drawn to a lot of the research at UTHSC, especially the research on HIV, which I’ve focused on in the past, and the obesity research that I’m working on now,” Gebreyesus said. “I also liked how diverse the departments were, which told me there would be a lot of diverse people there.”

Gebreyesus has always been interested in studying minority populations and people researchers tend to overlook. Under the mentorship of Maxwell Gyamfi, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Gebreyesus studies obesity in females as they age, a topic she said is often ignored.

“A lot of the research on obesity tends to focus on males,” she said. “The little research that has been done on obesity in females has concluded that females tend to be resistant to obesity, but they were focused on younger subjects. Obesity, particularly severe obesity, and its associated risks, such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension, is actually quite high in females that are older, in their pre-menopausal or menopausal age. So, there’s a really big difference between males and females, and sometimes they need to be studied exclusively.”

The annual Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which challenges PhD and master’s degree students to present their thesis and research in three minutes with one PowerPoint slide, came around at the right time for Gebreyesus. She attended the 2021 competition, just a few months into her first semester at UTHSC, and was excited to learn about the research happening at the school in such simple terms. She didn’t plan on competing the very next year, but when the sign-ups opened, she had just finished writing her research paper and had recently given her first seminar in front of her department.

“I just thought this would be a good time for me to summarize my work,” Gebreyesus said. “I didn’t expect to win, I just thought it would be good exposure and a good experience for me.”

Even after giving her three-minute presentation, Gebreyesus didn’t expect to win. She thought her chances were ruined when she stumbled over a word, but her friends reassured her that she did well.

“When I was announced as the people’s choice, I was grateful for that alone, but then they announced I won first place, and I was honestly surprised,” she said. “I saw the other presentations, and there were a lot of great ones, so it felt surreal.”

Lidya Gebreyesus is shown with Donald Thomason, PhD, dean of the College of Graduate Health Sciences, after winning the Three Minute Thesis competition.

Gebreyesus’ presentation, titled “Pregnane-X receptor: The Genetic switch to turn off Obesity in menopausal Women,” won her a cash prize, along with a trip to Tampa, Florida, to compete in the regional 3MT competition at the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools meeting in March.

The second-place winner, Rachel Perkins, also won a cash prize and the chance to join Gebreyesus on visits with alumni, where the winners will share their research and make important network connections. Perkins’ project was titled “WNT5B in Osteosarcoma Stem Cells,” and her mentor is Susan Miranda, PhD, associate professor in the College of Medicine’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

“I’m working in a field that still has a lot of unanswered questions: what causes osteosarcoma, how to treat it, and how to improve the lives of pediatric patients who are diagnosed with it. In addition, the treatment regimen and survival rates for children diagnosed with osteosarcoma have not changed for the last 4 decades, which is why the work I do with Dr. Miranda is so important to me,” Perkins said. “Furthermore, I’m honored to have received second place in the 3MT competition because it’s so important in a research career to be able to briefly communicate your area of interest in both scientific and lay language, and this competition is a fun way to practice that skill.”

Dean Donald Thomason poses with the winners of the Three Minute Thesis competition. Lidya Gebreyesus, right, won first place and people’s choice, and Rachel Perkins, left, won second place.

“Conveying a convincing message succinctly is challenging, especially when that message is about highly technical research and is intended for a lay audience,” said Donald Thomason, PhD, dean of the College of Graduate Health Sciences. “The 3MT competition helps the students develop that skill so that they can communicate about their work with any audience.”

While studying obesity has led to success for Gebreyesus, she sees it as just a starting point in her research. She hopes to branch out to study the gut microbiome and how it affects both obesity and a person’s overall health. At the end of the day, her goal is to make a difference with her research.

“Research goes on for years and years before it can bring any meaningful solution, but it’s just what a science is – one added information over the other that eventually brings a little change,” she said. “I’d just like to be a part of a positive change for female health.”