Naoko Uno wins UGA’s Sixth 3MT

By Staff

Naoko Uno, the 2018 3MT grand winner and doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, lives two lives which intersected neatly and handily last year. On one hand, she works in a laboratory where researchers are developing a dengue vaccine using COBRA, a “computationally optimized broadly reactive antigen.” Their research seeks to create a comprehensive vaccine that will protect against the dengue virus, which has four different strains.

Dengue is also on the rise.

Uno’s winning 3MT presentation was titled, “Designing a Universal Dengue Vaccine.”

But in her off-hours, Uno is passionately, exuberantly making noise rather than running tests. She can often be found pounding the keyboard and singing vocals with several Athens bands, including her very own band, Calico Vision. (Sometimes, she confesses to singing in the lab when working alone at night.)

And so, a stage is a familiar place for the avid musician and scientist, who performs and records music in her home studio.

Yet Uno’s 3MT preparation technique was unconventional, and one inspired by years of mastering piano compositions. It meant learning her three-minute presentation both forwards and backwards.

She tackled her preparations exactly as her music teachers had taught her to master musical pieces. And it worked.

Uno never skipped a beat.

She rehearsed her speech over and again until she could pick it up again seamlessly should she falter, without having to start over. And the effort paid off, netting her first place.

Despite having learned her 3MT speech backwards and forwards, and pushing herself to perfect it, Uno still worried afterward. Distilled to three minutes, the speeches must capture a thesis subject which can be 80,000 words long.

“I didn’t remember if I’d covered all the points,” she says. “Everyone else was so good! I think that got me nervous, because they were so good.”

Yet she won the $1,000 prize, which Uno will apply towards a future family visit to Japan.

“Right now, I’m going to save it…and be a little less poor!”


Uno changed her research focus after returning to her native Athens from the West Coast, where she had done graduate studies in nanomaterials and immunology at the Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication at Portland State University. She also previously worked in vaccine research at the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center at Providence Hospital.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, Uno came to Athens, Ga. at age seven with her family. Her father is a scientist, and her mother, a pianist, studied audiology at UGA.

Uno’s grandfather, Saburo Kubota, retired from Toyota and taught Japanese classes at UGA. It was assumed she, too, would remain at UGA, but she sought more independence.

At 18, she left for Portland, Oregon to begin undergraduate studies in physics at Lewis and Clark College. “My father is a physicist,” she explains.

She remained out West, and earned a master’s in applied physics at Portland State, still following in her father’s footsteps. Then, Uno shifted course. It was a daunting decision and required a change in disciplines, leaving physics for immunological research. But there were contributing factors, both academic and personal.

“When I did my master’s, I collaborated with a cancer research institute,” Uno says. The experience there had given rise to a new interest for Uno, which dovetailed with other concerns.

“What drew me to the cancer research was a family tie to cancer; also, even a childhood friend (who had cancer). Because of that, I wanted to start working in cancer vaccines.”

More to the point, Uno felt she “could help a lot more people rather than doing theoretical quantum mechanics.”



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