When the Research Loves You Back
Early in his PhD in Human and Molecular Genetics, Waël Maharsy was hunched over a microscope in the lab of Dr. Mona Nemer, whom he would come to see as his “living role model”. It was his first mouse study of many, and he was looking for signs of chemotherapy’s toxicity in otherwise healthy tissues.
“We were trying to check if the treatment of these mice with imatinib mesylate, an anticancer drug, causes any structural changes in the lungs,” he says. The drug had been recently shown to cause heart muscle damage.
The work involved examining slide after slide of mouse lung sections under a microscope. Each slide had been treated with a stain designed to show the layout of cells by dying the cell nucleus a dark shade of purple and the cytoplasm pink.
One particular slide stood out immediately—not for what it said about the science, but for its aesthetic quality. An area of the image looked, for all the world, like an ornate Valentine’s Day card, with a pink heart that seemed to be made out of lace edging, embedded in a crocheted network of filaments. He took a quick photo and showed it to friends, who agreed it was remarkable.
“In this microscope image, you can see a heart-shaped bronchus surrounded by alveoli and a couple blood vessels,” he says.
Maharsy’s study did not reveal any structural changes in the lungs, but he did find plenty of changes in the heart.
A decade later in 2017, when uOttawa’s Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology department announced a Science Illustration Contest, the now-Research Associate Dr. Maharsy remembered the touching image on the slide he had saved all those years ago. He took a new, higher-resolution photo at 20X magnification and cropped it to center the heart-shaped bronchus.
He submitted the image, and it won first place.
From the day in 2006 when Dr. Nemer gave a lecture in Beirut, Lebanon—where Maharsy was studying for his Master’s—she has been his mentor. Long after stashing away the heart-shaped bronchus slide, Maharsy finished his PhD in 2012, then stayed on in Dr. Nemer’s lab for a three-year post-doctoral fellowship. After that, he stayed another four years as a Research Associate before finally striking out on his own this past summer. But he will always look to Dr. Nemer as “a fountain of knowledge, an extreme motivator, and a caring second mother.”