Catching the research bug
By Victoria Gilchrist and Nasana Vaidya
Special Guest Writers
Victoria Gilchrist and Nasana Vaidya are 4th year Faculty of Medicine students in the Honours Bachelor of Science Program in Translational and Molecular Medicine. They wrote this story originally for their Science Communications course as part of a series profiling researchers at the Faculty of Medicine.
The course is designed and taught by Dr. Kristin Baetz, director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, to foster in students the ability to convey complex science to a lay audience – an essential skill when making presentations, applying for grants, composing abstracts for research papers and generally communicating one’s work in the biomedical sciences.
MedPoint will be publishing profiles from this series throughout 2019 .
Everyone has, at some point in their life, been unexpectedly struck by inspiration. Often, this moment stimulates an unforgettable feeling of purpose and motivation that resonates long after the moment has passed. For Melissa Phuong, this moment came during her undergraduate research experience.
Plunging into her undergraduate studies, Phuong held onto a steadfast determination of pursuing medicine as a career. Yet, she found herself profoundly inspired by how her mentor Dr. Andrea Boggild, a clinician-scientist at Toronto General Hospital and Public Health Ontario Laboratory, coalesced the roles of seeing patients and leading investigations. The more she immersed herself in medical research, the clearer it became that she had to integrate research into her future.
“I knew pursuing an MD/PhD would be a long journey, but I couldn't let go of the idea,” Phuong says. “And, I knew I didn't want to delay developing my skills in research if provided the opportunity to pursue medicine.”
Currently, Phuong is transitioning from her MD studies to her PhD project at Dr. Subash Sad’s lab at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine. As the first female uOttawa MD/PhD candidate to receive a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, she is all the more determined to produce innovative work. Her research focuses on investigating inflammatory pathways of chronic infection in the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF).
CF is a genetic disorder affecting an estimated one in every 3,600 children born in Canada. The culprit? One faulty gene called CFTR, or cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator.
This defect causes a build-up of thick mucus in the lungs that acts as breeding ground for bacteria, leaving patients with CF vulnerable to infection. In many cases, infections persist, eventually causing a decline in lung function. During such chronic progression, pulmonary exacerbations marked by intermittent and acute worsening of condition are common. Over time, extensive lung damage gives way to respiratory failure.
Much is still unknown about CF. What exactly causes bacterial infections to become chronic? How is the immune system responding to the infections? What drives the switch from stable to exacerbated infection? While these questions are the forefront of Phuong’s project, how it could potentially impact patients is always at the back of her mind.
Phuong recounts meeting a patient affected by CF during her medical training. “It was definitely a surreal moment,” she shares, “to discuss the challenges the patient went through, [while] also thinking about the project and how it could potentially impact the clinical side.”
One challenge, conveys Phuong, is not knowing how antibiotics influence the ‘bugs’ in patient samples used for research. From a research perspective, this begs the question: Is this truly reflective of infections within the lungs of CF patients? Nonetheless, when experiencing exacerbation, antibiotics are of absolute necessity.
Phuong remarks, “It’s interesting to hear one side in terms of research sample collection and also the patient side in terms of looking at what you could expect from a patient experience.”
When asked what keeps her motivated, she points to her intrinsic interest and passion. Her current supervisor Dr. Sad encourages this, saying that the best scientists are not necessarily the most knowledgeable or the most hardworking, but rather the ones who are the most interested in what they are doing.
“If you're genuinely interested in what you're learning,” adds Phuong, “then that will motivate you to keep learning and keep trying things even if you're facing some failures. You got this!”
Looking into the future, Phuong would love to continue her work exploring the nature of infections. And why microbiology? She beams, “I love bugs!”
In the end, she says, “I'm lucky that things worked out and I can do two things that I love.”
Read more about Melissa Phuong.
Main photo: Pictured here in the Sad lab, Melissa Phuong is hitting her stride in the MD/PhD program at uOttawa’s Faculty of Medicine. Photo credit: Victoria Gilchrist