Parasite pitch wins WiSys Quick Pitch

Lexi Wojcik-Kretchmer, Staff Writer

A UW Oshkosh chemistry major who is studying a tropical disease caused by blood-dwelling flatworms was the 2022 winner in the annual WiSys Quick Pitch on March 2.

Hailey Johnson was one of 12 students presenting their research in only three minutes to the audience and panel of judges, explaining why their research is important.

“Ligand Gated Ion Channels as Drug Targets to Kill Blood-Dwelling Parasitic Flatworms” focus’ was on the disease schistosomiasis, a tropical disease caused by blood-dwelling flatforms, called schistosomes, that over 200 million people in 78 countries contact; however, there a drug to treat the disease but it is becoming less effective and there is no vaccine for this disease that most often affects children.

“We’ve looked at research on other parasitic worms, which found that specific proteins in cell membranes are useful targets for antiparasitic drugs, and hypothesized that similar proteins in schistosomes will act as drug targets as well,” Johnson said. “We’ve searched the genomes of the worms to predict these proteins, then carried out genetic experiments to verify their existence. Now we’re working to characterize these proteins and evaluate their potential as drug targets in order to find new drugs and help prevent the major economic losses and severe health impacts of the debilitating disease schistosomiasis.”

“I am thankful for the opportunity to have participated in the competition and grateful for the unexpected win,” Johnson said. “I’d like to extend my congratulations to other participants and wish them success in their research endeavors.”

Second place went to Drosianos Louvaris, Mechanical Engineering Technology, for his work on “Applications of Information Theory on Allostery and Nanomechanical Communication”.

Courtesy of WiSys

Allostery is essentially when molecules change shape so they can perform a specific task; this change also affects how the molecule behaves and is difficult to predict.

“One approach to looking at this problem is simplifying the proteins into regions that are then represented as nodes such that the protein is represented as a network of nodes, or a spatial network,” Louvaris said. “Then using information-theoretic quantities such as information entropy, also known as self-information, and mutual information we can see how each region behaves relative to the other in order to identify allosteric sites and allosteric effects using less complex simulation tools.”

By doing this research and combining it with advancements in machine learning, it could lead to the development of new therapeutics.

“I found it very interesting to spend my free time researching a topic I was very unfamiliar with and to learn about the creative process involved in modeling processes mathematically,” Louvaris said. “Although we all think math is hard, modeling things mathematically often times leads to new insights and the ability to predict outcomes.”

Louvaris was happy to get second place because of the fun and rewarding experience.

“It was definitely a great experience to know that I was able to convey the main ideas of my research in such a short time so that other people saw the value in it,” Louvaris said. “Also, getting second at WiSys QuickPitch was one of the highlights of my semester and was simply just fun talking about something that interested me to people that may not have known much about the topic!”

The people’s choice award went to Liseng Xiong, History, for “Cia Siab In Wisconsin: A HMoob Story”

Xiong’s pitch focused on the fact that most times, the Hmoob refugee story/history isn’t included in American History but rather put into ethnic or cultural history.

“Cia Siab in Wisconsin: A Hmoob Story is an organization working to rewrite the Hmoob story as a part of American history,” Xiong said. “We do this by working within the Hmoob community and record the experiences and hardships that the community has faced since our arrival to the United States.”

Cia Siab in Wisconsin: A Hmoob Story is planning a permanent traveling exhibit to tour Wisconsin by 2025 but if you would like to see some visuals of this research before them, you can go to

Xiong was interested in this work because he himself is a Hmoob American who is dedicated to making sure his story is heard.

“The act of writing out the Hmoob narrative within the greater American history deeply pains me, it feels as though I have been written out of history,” Xiong said.

The people’s choice is chosen by the audience for the presentation they liked the best or was the most convincing to them.

“Winning the People’s Choice Award means a lot to me because it shows that others also believe in our work and what it stands for,” Xiong said. “Proper minority representation is very important and that is why we strive to create an impact with our work at Cia Siab in Wisconsin: A Hmoob Story.”

Dr. Stephen Kercher, an organizer of this event, said that overall the pitch needs to be delivered in an effective way.

“This means capture the audience’s and the judges’ attention, make sense of some complicated ideas and make sure the ideas seem like they’re relevant, impactful and meaningful or that they address some serious kind of need in some way,” Kercher said. “It also needs to convey originality; research is expanding upon what we know and the pitch needs to effectively describe the need for something new or the way something will be done differently.”

This year, the judges were Martin Rudd, Assistant Chancellor for Access Campus, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Esther Etke, the Interim Director of the Office of Sponsored Programs.

The judges look for the most concise, short, powerful and clear description of what a student is researching or proposing to research.

Other than cash prizes for the winners, there are so many other benefits for the students who participate.

“It’s a great experience for any student who is working on a project or thinking about in terms of their future how best to be able to describe what their interests and strengths are; to be able to do it in a quick manner.”

“It’s a very useful tool to be able to develop and use for all students who plan to work in the workforce. It’s great for students who are doing research as well. What I mean by that is when you’re doing research…it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. You’ve got a lot of ideas and all sorts of things are relevant to what you’re working on. When it comes to describing what really matters or what’s really important, it can be challenging, but it’s very useful to do that and can help you think more clearly about what it is that you’re doing. When you force yourself to distill in very simple, concrete, direct terms, what really matters about what you’re working on, it’s a very helpful exercise.

“What Quick Pitch does for those who watch it is really inspiring, so I’d like UW Oshkosh students to find inspiration in the example that students who are willing to give it a shot, demonstrate. Students are capable of doing incredible things in the classroom and outside of the classroom in research projects or creative work that really pushes them to develop a set of skills and expand their knowledge in ways that go way beyond the classroom.”

Kercher also said the competition is helpful because it allows for a conversation to take place between the presenter and someone who may have a different perspective and have intriguing questions to really get the presenter to hone in on their research.

Beyond just benefits for the student, there are also benefits for the teachers and mentors who help the students.

“It’s the most gratifying thing as a teacher,” Kercher said. “It’s a great teaching experience because seeing how a student develops from the time they first practice pitching at coaching sessions and working with us and their research mentors outside of class,” he said “The progression you see from the first time they try to pitch, to the finished product is staggering.”

If you’re interested in starting to get into research but missed the WiSys Quick Pitch, the 29th annual Celebration of Scholarship and Creative Activity is on April 28th. Here, students will be doing a quick pitch of their poster/presentation. All students are welcome to attend this amazing event.