Trainee spotlight

Lei Cao

Lei Cao - Photo credit Weam Fageera

May 2017 Trainee spotlight

Supervisor
Suzanne King 

Co-Supervisor
Moshe Szyf 

Degree
Postdoctoral Fellow,  Year 5 

Program of Study
Effect of prenatal maternal stress on children's DNA methylation profile and physical development. 

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

Dr. Suzanne King’s Project Ice Storm is the first study that allows us to explore epigenetics in a human cohort exposed to prenatal stress derived from a natural disaster. Moreover, the Douglas Institute has an increasingly strong international reputation, and is one of the top Research Institutes in Canada. 

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

I did my PhD study in University of Trier in Germany and Public Research Center and the Health Laboratory in Luxembourg. My project was transcriptional control of human Glucocorticoid Receptor (GR).

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less)

My research focuses on the effect of prenatal maternal stress derived from a natural disaster on child development using (epi)genetic approaches. This is very important research because using the natural disaster (the 1998 Quebec Ice Storm) as our prenatal “stressor” allows us to distinguish between different aspects of prenatal stress: what happened to the women objectively (e.g., the number of days without electricity), compared to how they thought about the disaster (e.g., “It was a positive experience”), and their subjective distress from it (e.g., “I have flashbacks to the storm”). No other project in the world is able to make these important distinctions, and we are finding that they have different effects on the epigenome.

What excites you most about your research?

The human cohort used in my research has been followed for almost 20 years. Working with this longitudinal study makes me feel excited. We have found that two aspects of prenatal stress, the objective degree of exposure and the women’s cognitive appraisal, impacted genome-wide DNA methylation profile in T-cells of Ice Storm children, and could still be seen at least 13.5 years later. Furthermore, we found that DNA methylation mediates the association between prenatal stress and child’s outcomes, such as immune and metabolic function. 

If you could go back in time and give your "younger self" advice, what would you do differently?

The advice I’d like to give my younger self is to stay open-minded and to consider my specific research with a multi-disciplinary outlook. 

Please share any additional experiences or advice that you'd like to share with prospective Douglas trainees.

Research life is challenging, but be confident, patient and have fun! 

 

Richard Boyce

Richard Boyce

March 2017 Trainee spotlight

Supervisor
Sylvain Williams

Co-supervisor
Antoine Adamantidis (now at University of Bern)

Degree
PhD student, year 6

Program of Study
Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

I was initially drawn to the work of Sylvain Williams, a researcher at the Douglas, who at the time of my application to McGill was doing some interesting and innovative work on the basic mechanisms of synchronous brain (specifically hippocampal) EEG oscillations. Sylvain's lab was a natural fit for my PhD given that I had previously studied the changes which occur in the hippocampus during the development of epilepsy, a neurological order characterized by recurrent seizure activity due to excessive neuronal synchrony; I also had great interest in completing a more in-depth study into the role of brain oscillations in health and disease. Coincidentally, Dr. Antoine Adamantidis, a sleep researcher who had recently joined the Douglas at the time, was looking to incorporate analysis of brain oscillations into his own research. To make a long story short, I was recruited into a collaboration between Drs. Williams and Adamantidis where we saw a unique opportunity to directly probe the role of REM sleep in memory formation for the first time.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

My academic career started at the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario) where I completed my bachelor degree in medical sciences.  Like most others in the same program, I had initially intended to pursue medical school after graduating.  However, for the final year of the program I was given the opportunity to gain first-hand research experience by completing an honours thesis research project in one of the laboratories in the department.  I ended up being matched up with Dr. Stan Leung, where I assisted with studying the neural mechanisms behind epilepsy development in rats.  I was immediately surprised by how much we still have to learn about the function of the brain in health and disease, and quickly realized that I wanted to combat this lack of knowledge directly.  I therefore chose to complete my MSc in the same laboratory while further studying epilepsy.  

Sell your research in three sentences (or less).

Despite decades of research, identifying the precise physiological function of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep has remained an elusive goal due to the inherent difficulty in experimentally isolating REM sleep from other basic behavioural states (e.g. non-REM/slow-wave sleep, wakefulness). My PhD research work has overcome these technical limitations to provide the first direct evidence linking REM sleep with memory formation. This work has significant implications for human health considering the prevalence of sleep disorders in modern society as well as the link between disturbances in REM sleep and cognitive decline in aging and Alzheimer's disease.

What excites you most about your research?

Sleep or sleep-like activity has been shown to occur in practically every animal studied to date. For example, even insects have regular periods of sustained inactivity and reduced responsiveness! However, the specific purpose of sleeping behaviour in nature remains unclear. That such a ubiquitous basic behaviour is still so poorly understood remains surprising to me despite having spent 6 years in the sleep research field; the opportunity to directly address such a basic lack of understanding is extremely motivating.

If you could go back in time and give your "younger self" advice, what would you do differently?

I don't have any major regrets, however, if I could go back to my undergraduate degree when I had a much less hectic schedule I would look to have spent more time gaining first-hand research experience (e.g. by volunteering to work in various research labs on campus). I have always had broad interests, so this would have ideally included branching out into fields, such as engineering, which were outside of my degree focus (pharmacology and physiology).