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Undergraduates win award at immunology conference

Immunology Conference
Biology majors Mel Johar (left), Haley Konsek (not pictured) and Elias Wheibe (right) win poster award amid competition from more senior investigators.

Since 1963, the Midwinter Conference of Immunologists has met at picturesque Asilomar in the town of Pacific Grove, California, which is nestled on the Monterey Peninsula. With its tranquil, seaside setting, it’s no wonder the venue, designed by Arts and Crafts-era architect Julia Morgan in the early 1900s, has served as home to the conference for more than half a century.

Apart from providing an inviting environment for the meeting, MCI says its goal is “to provide a forum where the newest developments in immunology can be shared with colleagues and communicated to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in a relaxed environment.”

immunology conference
Wheibe (left) and Johar (right) present poster.

But this year at the 58th meeting, the conference also played host to six Furman biology undergraduates who presented posters based on summer research — Jeremy Irsik ‘21, Mel Johar ‘19, Jamila Johnson ‘19, Ryan Scruggs ‘19, Sara Stuart ‘19 and Elias Wheibe ‘20.

And two of the Furman cohort, Johar and Wheibe, won special recognition on the national stage with an award sponsored by the American Association of Immunologists — The Ray Owen Poster Award for Outstanding Young Investigator.

Johar and Wheibe presented their work (and the work of biology major Haley Konsek ‘20, who was on study away) investigating the biological activity of hibiscone C derivatives in the inhibition of a protein that controls cellular metabolism that is upregulated in many cancers —part of a long-standing collaboration between Biology Professor Jason Rawlings’ lab and that of Chemistry Professor Brian Goess.

In short, according to Rawlings, the students successfully determined the molecular features critical to biological activity and were able to shed light on the mechanism directly responsible for positive outcomes.

“The long-term goal of this project,” said Rawlings, “is to develop a chemotherapeutic drug that is more potent, more stable and more selective than existing options.”

Describing the achievement as a “brilliant paradigm,” Furman Office of Integrative Research in the Sciences Director John Wheeler is struck by how all the elements of The Furman Advantage coalesced to bring about the opportunity. That included faculty commitment and student excellence, support from internal and external sources, and interdisciplinary engagement across the fundamental research question.

About the award, for which there was no undergraduate category, Wheeler said, “We are exceptionally proud of the accomplishment of Elias, Mel and Haley, whose work stood out among the research of graduate students and other more senior investigators.”

Rawlings said he is grateful for the Furman Student Fellows program, which provided research support for Johar, Konsek and Wheibe, and for the Office of Undergraduate Research, which funded travel to Asilomar for all six students.

The research projects for the biology students were also supported by grants awarded to Rawlings from two other sources — South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and the SC Space Grant Consortium, a program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Rawlings said the efforts of Wheeler and the Furman Office of Integrative Research in the Sciences ensure Furman remains competitive for awards that are “essential for our continued success.”

For more information, contact Jason Rawlings at 864-294-3243, and

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