Women of Distinction: 2018 Edition

That special time of year is almost upon us again, the chance to celebrate Hamilton’s Women of Distinction.  And like many years, the McMaster community is out in full force.  I’m not sure exactly what it is about our community that produces so many exceptional women but in many years McMaster women make up over half of all nominees and every single Young Woman of Distinction.  That is an achievement for which the McMaster community should be very, very proud.  I encourage you to read their biographies and hear their stories to find some great inspiration.  These women are smart, enthusiastic, energetic, exceptional and contribute to our community in so many unique ways.   For me, the best categories to read about are at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Life Time Achievement nominees and the Young Woman of Distinctions.  I am really not sure how anyone in either category can achieve so much.

2018 is a special year for our lab because Ushma Purohit is a nominee in the Young Woman of Distinction category.  Ushma has been a Wilson Tox Lab member since her 2nd year of university, when she asked me to supervise her in an experiential learning course.  She was keen to get into a lab and gain some hands on experience and excited to join a new area for our lab.  Ushma worked with another stellar undergraduate researcher, Abby Lee, to develop hydra as a model system to study the impacts of human pharmaceuticals on aquatic species.  Abby was completing her senior thesis, assessing the effects of chronic exposure of hydra to an anti-epileptic and an anti-depressant pharmaceutical.  Ushma learned how to prepare, stain, and count the different cell typess from hydra so we could identify whether there were changes in the proportions of cell types after exposure.  That research is now being written into a manuscript for publication.  I often point to this area of our research program to demonstrate how impactful undergraduate researchers can be.

Ushma has continued to volunteer and complete research course work in my lab and is now in her senior year.  She has gone from assisting others on research to running her own.  Her senior thesis research focuses on the anti-microbial compound triclosan and whether this impacts compound negatively impacts hydra biology.  She is a bright and independent researcher with a great future.  Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Beyond her classes and research, Ushma has been contributing to her communities at McMaster, in the larger city of Hamilton, and beyond.

So what does it take to be a Young Woman of Distinction?  Well let’s just list two of Ushma’s accomplishments outside of the lab.  Ushma founded the first Canadian chapter of the organization She’s the First, which champions education of girls in low-income countries.  The McMaster chapter has focused on raising funds and education campaigns including conferences, art showcases, recreational events, and awareness videos, to encourage the conversation around intersectional feminisim within the McMaster community. Within Hamilton, this club has hosted educational workshops at the local Native Women’s Centre on health, self-care and other topics and in Hamilton’s elementary schools to educate students on topics such as communication and the media, body image and bullying, and female leadership. Not so surprisingly, this club has won two awards within its first year; a McMaster Student Union award for the Best New Club of the Year and an award from the parent organization for Outstanding Achievement in Community Engagement.

Ushma is the current President of the UNICEF club at McMaster University, a club she has been active in for over 3 years.  It is one of the largest clubs on campus and raises funds to support the health and education of children and raise awareness of humanitarian issues within the McMaster community.  The McMaster UNICEF club sends over 100 volunteers to the Children’s International Learning Centre and supports education of young children through a variety of initiatives.

What has Ushma’s nomination meant to her?

“The experience of becoming a nominee for the Women of Distinction awards has been a lot more meaningful for me than I could have imagined. This nomination provided me with the opportunity to learn about and interact with some of the most driven, hard-working and talented women in Hamilton. As an individual who is currently at the advent of her career, experiences like this play a pivotal role in moulding my ambitions and aspirations for the future. Regardless of who wins the Young Woman of Distinction Award, I believe that as nominees, we have won an eye-opening experience that we will carry with us in the years to come.”

Feel inspired yet?  This isn’t a complete list of all she does, but just a couple of highlights of what this young woman of distinction has already accomplished.  Ushma is just one of 34 nominees for the 2018 YWCA Hamilton Women of Distinction awards.  Take a few minutes and read about who they are and what they do.  Regardless of who wins the awards, McMaster and Hamilton are the big winners here because these women are exceptional.

Bring on the summer!

With each academic term change, there can be a change in who is doing research in the Wilson Tox Lab.  But summer and fall term mark times of large change, as undergraduates  and graduate students complete their thesis research, write up, and move on to new challenges.  This year it is a bit of an exception as many of the undergraduates that have been working in our lab over the last year are staying to continue their research.  Kirill Pankov, an undergraduate student that works between Dr. Andrew McArthur’s lab and Wilson Tox Lab, had a very successful thesis.  He won the best thesis presentation for the Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization Program (BDC); no mean feat considering he was discussing his research in Cnidarian genomes!  Kirill is continuing to work on that project over the summer with the hopes that we are wrapping up a project spanning multiple Cnidarian genomes and will be able to move into nomenclature of the cytochrome P450 genes in this important animal phylum.  Caitlin West and Devon Jones completed their undergraduate theses in the Biology, Physiology Specialization Program and are remaining in the lab to contribute to our whitefish program (Caitlin) and mouse fetal programming project (Devon).  Devon won best poster presentation for the Biology Department’s senior thesis class.  Caitlin has just won the best video in the iClimate video competition, showcasing excellent science communication skills.  Check out her video on the iClimate Facebook page; a link is provided on our research pages.  These are just three of the seven undergraduates working in the lab this summer.

We do have a few new people that have joined the lab in 2017.  Meghan Fuzzen joined us in January to begin a post doctoral fellowship after completing her PhD at Waterloo.  She was actually out in the field with us in late fall for whitefish spawning, working ahead of her PDF to get experiments going.  Hard core scientist in our midst and we are so glad to have her!  Allison Kennedy is another post doctoral fellow that has joined the group more recently.  Allison has been working at NOSM with our collaborator, Dr. Doug Boreham, and has moved to McMaster to work on our Mouse Fetal Programming project as part of our ongoing collaboration with the Boreham lab.  We also have two new PhD students in our midst this summer.  Andrea Murillo has moved from the University of Regina and Dr. Richard Manzon’s lab to complete her PhD with us.  We have gotten to know Andrea over the last two years of her MSc degree, where she worked on heat shock proteins in developing whitefish.  We were lucky enough to have her in the field with us each fall for the last few years, collecting spawning whitefish to perform IVF and generate embryos for our research program.  Andrea’s research is going to move us into more invertebrate species and allow us to continue our research on cytochrome P450 enzymes in the marine annelid worm, Capitella telata.  James McEvoy will be joining us shortly from Australia, where he is completing a PhD at Flinders University.  He is our first Cotutelle student and will get his degree from both Flinders and McMaster!

And of course, we are starting to look forward to fall and the next major change in the lab.  Three graduate students are wrapping up their research; both Adam and Shayen will be finishing their MSc degrees by fall term and Shamaila is finishing the last bit of her PhD research this summer.  So between research and writing manuscripts, this is shaping up to be one exciting summer in the Wilson Tox Lab.

Meet Devon Jones, undergraduate researcher

The second undergraduate to share her experience is Devon Jones, who is one of the newer undergraduates in the lab.  Since January, Devon has been working with with one of the graduate students, Shayen Sreetharan, on a mouse project.  This summer, she is starting to get her feet wet in the fish lab.  Devon will start her senior thesis in the lab this fall.  

Devon Jones, Undergraduate Researcher

Devon JonesEducational Background:

H.BSc. Biology, Physiology Specialization, Level IV, McMaster University

I entered the Wilson lab in January of 2016, halfway through the third year of my undergraduate degree. Having only been a part of the lab for a short time, I feel like I have a lot to learn, but I’m slowly making progress. The majority of the work I have been involved in so far has been assisting with Shayen Sreetharan’s M. Sc. Thesis project. Shayen is studying the effects of varying amounts of low dose gamma irradiation in utero on C57Bl/6 mice. These low doses are similar to the quantity of radiation that would be administered during a brief x-ray or other form of medical imaging test. One of his main points of interest is how these low doses during the fetal period can impact the blood pressure of the pups at about 16 weeks of age. My primary focus for the summer is collecting these blood pressure measurements. I am also doing some data analysis, as well as learning some of the techniques other graduate students use on their projects. In the fall, I will begin working on my senior thesis, which will focus primarily on fludamide exposures and the impacts on androgen receptors and CYP expression.

Still being new to the lab atmosphere, I’m in the process of accumulating crucial skills as well as learning regular maintenance and other important components to helping the entire lab function smoothly as a whole. The biggest thing I’m starting to realize is how little you know about science before you try lab work. Classes and tutorials can only teach students so much about where results come from, and what procedures actually involve. When you read a paper, or listen to a lecture, you have no concept of what is actually involved in producing the end result. I probably learned about how the PCR process worked 3 times during my undergrad, but until trying it in real life, I didn’t really grasp how much work and time are involved in executing the process. Additionally, no paper ever mentions the number of pipette tips that need to be autoclaved, or how long an autoclave cycle takes, in order to obtain your molecular biology results. The big picture is so much bigger than I expected! I think it is important for every undergraduate student to get involved in a lab setting to learn about how these things work. Whether it is running a behavioural study or a pharmaceutical exposure, you can’t learn this stuff in a simulated 3 hour lab slot. I definitely wish I had gotten involved in this lab sooner than I did, but I plan to make the most of my time here!

Meet Abigail Lee, undergraduate researcher

Over the next months, I am asking the undergraduate students in my lab to write about their experiences and research in the Wilson Tox Lab.  We are very lucky that many undergraduates are with us for several years as volunteers, experiential learning course students, thesis students, and summer researchers.  The first undergraduate to share her experience is Abigail Lee, who has done all of the above.  Since her second year of undergraduate, Abby has been a near constant in the lab, so much so that we are having a hard time facing that after this summer, she will leave us and move on to medical school.  During her undergraduate degree, Abby has developed into a competent, skilled, and knowledgeable researcher.  She is will be greatly missed.

Abigail Lee, Undergraduate Researcher 

Educational Background:

  • H.BSc. Biology, Minor Biochemistry, McMaster University, 2016

I am currently working on a project studying the effects of pharmaceuticals on the budding rate, morphology, feeding behavior and regenerative capacity of brown Hydra.

I’ve been a part of the Wilson lab since the second year of my undergraduate career and needless to say this has become like my second home! I was lucky enough to be taken in as a volunteer, where I began familiarizing myself with the lab environment by being the primary animal husbandry person for our zebrafish. Soon, I began splitting my time working on the Lake Whitefish species, where I was a given a project to determine the effects short term heat shocks on the development of Lake Whitefish. I was awarded an NSERC USRA in the summer of my second year where I wrote my first paper about the research I completed with Lake Whitefish (Read my paper here, shameless plug: doi: 10.1016/j.jtherbio.2016.01.010.). In my third year, I switched gears towards a molecular biology approach and completed an independent research project (Science 3RP3) studying the effects of different temperature regimes on gene expression of oxidative phosphorylative genes in Lake Whitefish. Finally, for my senior thesis, I studied the effects of fluoxetine and carbamazepine on multiple different endpoints in Brown Hydra. I am currently working on writing a manuscript to publish this work. In my final summer work term, along with completing my Hydra project, I am also helping with Shayen Sreethanran’s (http://sreetharan.weebly.com) M.Sc. thesis studying the effects of low dose radiation in mice.

I would not be the person I am today without this entire experience in the Wilson Lab. I’ve been a volunteer, an independent research course student, a thesis student and a summer work student and I can walk away confidently saying that I have learned so many different techniques and skills that will serve me for a lifetime.

Some important things that I learned while working in the Wilson lab are:

1) Always try something new; don’t only cling to what you know but immerse yourself into something new, without fear, because you never know what you may learn.

2) Never give up; research does not always work out your way. Those ‘not statistically significant’ results are still results! Keep working hard!

3) Don’t underestimate any experience; I began with racking tips and cleaning poop out of fish tanks, but look where that brought me! Every experience will take you closer to where you want to be.

The people in the lab have become like my family; they took me under their wings and have shaped me to become the scientist I am today. The collaborative atmosphere allowed me to learn from the best and the satisfaction of working my way up from a volunteer to an independent researcher is incomparable to any other experience. It’s true that hard work and determination pay off!

My time at McMaster University is nearing an end and I will be attending the University of Toronto to pursue an M.D. But this won’t be the last time the research world hears my name, I hope to eventually pursue a Ph.D to combine my love of research with my passion for medicine.

So, you want to be a session chair?

Michael Lim is a MSc student in the Wilson Tox Lab and recently had his first experience as a conference session chair.  He shares his experiences in this post…

Why hello there! If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re likely in the same position I was in a few months ago; interested in an opening to be a session chair for a conference, but not quite sure what the job entails. Well rest assured, as I’ll share my recent experience being a chair at the 55th Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ) Annual Meeting based at Western University.

As a second year McMaster University Master’s student (try saying that 10 times fast!) in the Wilson Toxicology Lab, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several conferences and meetings. In fact, I attended the 54th CSZ Meeting last year at the University of Calgary. If you’re a biologist, and especially if you’re Canadian, chances are that you’ve at least heard of the CSZ meeting, if you haven’t attended it in person. For those of you who haven’t yet heard about CSZ, their annual meeting serves as an opportunity for biologists from across the country and beyond to gather and share their research, celebrating ground-breaking studies and fantastic presentations across both platform and poster presentations. There is an incredibly wide variety of work, ranging from tiny organisms like daphnia all the way to multi-level African ecosystem dynamics.

As hundreds of members come to share their research every year, presentations end up being run in several consecutive sections throughout the day for the entire conference. Each platform presentation section is further split into different concurrent sessions which include research on a specific topic such as hypoxia, environmental contaminants, and molecular physiology. In order for each session to run smoothly and remain on schedule, CSZ members are asked to volunteer themselves as session chairs. This brings us to the heart of this post; what is a session chair, and what do they do? While I can’t speak for every session chair (there were over 20!), I can share some of my personal experiences and give some tips both on presenting and being a chair.

As I briefly mentioned before, this was my second time at a CSZ meeting, and this time around I decided I wanted to better understand how the conference was run and develop my presentation skills in a role that required more responsibility and flexible thinking. When the chance to be a session chair was offered, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity. That is not to say I had no doubts or questions. As a self-proclaimed introvert, like many scientists are, the idea of presiding over other researchers (some of whom are leaders in their fields) filled me with a sense of nervousness. What if I completely botch their name, or the name of the species they worked on? What if there are no questions and I subject the audience to intense awkward silence? What if I act like a literal “chair”, freezing up in front of the crowd? It is in moments of nervousness like these that I remember some advice I got from one of my teachers in middle school, which I’ll now pass on to you.

First, take a moment to step back and detach yourself. Becoming too focused and worrying about every tiny detail won’t help you. Prepare for things that are manageable, such as asking each presenter how they would like to be addressed and clarifying any pronunciation questions. In order to keep everything on schedule, I recommend setting up signals ahead of time with each presenter, preferably at least two signals spaced several minutes apart so that the presenter will have time to wrap up concisely. Some common signals to use include raising a piece of paper, or standing up at the side of the stage, but still in view of the presenter.

For everything else, you just need to accept that problems will always happen, and that you’ll just need to calmly address them one at a time. For example, during my session, there ended up being a scheduling conflict, which resulted in needing to move the speaking order around.

Second, being nervous is perfectly normal. Use it as a tool when preparing for your presentation, to focus on being as clear and direct as possible. During the presentation itself, turn the nervousness into energy to help your presentation stand out. This can come in many forms such as projecting your voice more strongly, using dynamic hand gestures, or even becoming spontaneously witty. This will not happen right away. It may even take tens to hundreds of presentations; but the important thing is to keep on practicing. If you don’t try to change, you never will.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, you must realize that your audience isn’t trying to tear you down. Without a doubt, you’ll come across a handful of people who enjoy making others feel awkward or uncertain, but the vast majority of your audience is genuinely interested in what you’re working on, and they want to see you develop and succeed as a researcher.

In closing, being a chair is something I definitely recommend everyone should try at least once in their graduate career. I know that it can sometimes be hard to know if your preparation and perseverance pay off, but in the words of someone who thanked me for running a good session, “As long as you keep everything moving and add your own fun flair, that’s all anyone can ask for.”