Étudiants en vedette

Caitlin Fowler

December 2019 Trainee Spotlight

Name of Supervisor: Jamie Near

Degree: Graduate Student – PhD

Year of Study: Year 3

Program of Study: Biological and Biomedical Engineering

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

Joining a lab at the Douglas was actually a bit of an accident. Initially when I looked at my current prof’s profile (Dr. Jamie Near) on the McGill website I didn’t see any projects I was interested in. Jamie’s background is in nuclear physics and much of his research description was based on method and hardware development for medical imaging, work I have zero background in. It was lucky for me that he saw my grad school application and noticed I had done some Alzheimer’s disease research, a topic that he had just gotten funding for and hadn’t yet added to his profile. I ended up interviewing with him and his lab and his students were so excited by their work that I couldn’t help but want to see what all the fuss was about. That and he said I could potentially join his hockey league as their first female goalie so there was extracurricular incentive too.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

I studied Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa and split my time between school work, working as a lifeguard/first aid instructor, and playing varsity hockey. In my last year at OttawaU I completed an Honours project studying Alzheimer’s disease under the supervision of Dr. Steffany Bennett, whose lab studies neurodegenerative disease using neurolipidomics (it’s a very cool and unique field of research, definitely worth a google!). At the end of that year I was given the opportunity to participate in a proposal-based science competition run by Scinapse and Western University. The combination of these two research experiences solidified my desire to pursue science at the graduate level! Plus I had heard that grad school conferences offered awesome opportunities to travel, something I hadn’t done much of prior to my Masters and PhD. Since joining the Douglas I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Paris and Utrecht, and hopefully I’ll be off to Australia next April!

Sell us your research:

With no effective treatments or definitive means of diagnosis we are firmly in the dark when it comes to understanding Alzheimer’s disease (AD). But what if we could peek into the diseased brain to shed light on which areas are affected and could be targeted with drugs? Medical imaging provides this unique window into the brain; I use imaging techniques to study how brain structure and chemistry change over time in rats genetically engineered to have AD, and how a common pain reliever may double as a treatment.

What excites you most about your research?

What excites me most is how interdisciplinary my research is. The project employs non-invasive MR techniques including structural MR Imaging (MRI) and Spectroscopy (MRS) to monitor longitudinal changes in neuroanatomy and neurotransmitter levels in the hippocampus of the TgF344-AD rat model of AD, both as the disease progresses and under treatment conditions. This project integrates concepts rooted in biochemistry, neuroscience, and medical physics, among others, which has exposed me to a diverse knowledge base and allowed me to develop a wide range of skills. I’m always learning, and as nerdy as it is, that makes me very happy!

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

I would tell my younger self to set up informational interviews earlier on in my career. Networking has given me every single opportunity in science I’ve ever had, from my first lab internship to science communication publications. People just want to help, and whether that’s some form of mentorship or job opportunity, it’s

all useful experience and time well-spent. Additionally, I would tell myself to branch out more in terms of what I pursued at the scientific level, both in terms of subject matter but also regarding extracurricular opportunities. In my final year of undergrad I chose to participate in a written research proposal competition, and my team and I came up with an idea that none of us had any experience in whatsoever. Not only did we actually end up winning the competition, but we all learned so much more than if we had stuck with science that we already knew and understood. I wish I had participated in things like this earlier on in my research career so I could have exposed myself to more people, topics, and opportunities! I’m not saying I would tell myself to “sign up for everything” but maybe “sign up for more diverse things”.

Do you have any additional experiences or advice that you'd like to share with prospective Douglas trainees?

  1. Expose yourself to diverse science: this can be in the form of diverse topics, forms of communication (academic versus science communication), and opinions, but most importantly, diverse voices and perspectives. Seek out and amplify perspectives of Indigenous people, people of colour, queer folks, and women, and remember that so much of past and current science comes from a biased and privileged perspective.
  2. Choose the people over the research when it comes to choosing mentors and/or supervisors: kind, honest, supportive, and passionate profs create environments where you can learn and grow as a researcher. Having your dream project handed to you won’t mean much if you’re unhappy and super stressed in the lab. If you’re really lucky (like me!), you’ll find a lab and a project you love!

Marie-Elyse Lafaille

June 2019 Trainee spotlight

Name of Supervisor: John Breitner

Degree: Graduate Student - PhD

Year of Study: Former student then postdoc

Program of Study: IPN

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas? 

The Douglas is associated with McGill. There was a new centre that was opening to discover new biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease. I had a few friends at the Douglas at the time. My now husband worked there as well. This just seemed like a great opportunity.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

I completed a masters in biochemistry at University de Montreal. I worked at Pharmascience in research and development doing analytical chemistry to reverse engineer drugs. I got a scholarship to do an internship at BASF in Germany, where I worked on a high-throughput assay to assess plant metabolism of herbicides. I researched asymmetric cell division focusing on the Delta-Notch pathway at the Institute in Research on Immunology and Cancer. I worked at Charles River Laboratories in formulations to make drugs to test in pre-clinical models. Finally, I had done a bachelor in biochemistry and pharmacology at McGill.

Sell us your research:

After several decades of research, we now understand that there is a long transition period from normal aging to dementia onset. Previous association studies, imaging, and autopsy work had hinted that olfactory functions might be indicative of an underlying neurodegenerative disorder like AD.

The goal of my research was to evaluate if odor identification was related to the Alzheimer's disease process in-vivo. We sought to use odor identification as a measure of change and investigate its association with severity markers of AD in both cross-section and over time.

What excites you most about your research? 

I'm really curious. Doing research enables me to continuously learn. I was able to work in a field that is multi-modal with almost no boundaries. I am able to learn about imaging, genetics, biochemistry, cardiovascular health, treatments, side effects, co-morbidities, and environmental risk factors. I love teaching and presenting. Part of doing research is to share what you are doing. This gives me a creative outlet and a sense of progress, in addition, I get feedback, which has incredible value. I was really lucky throughout my PhD; I got to be on the news several times. I have had amazing opportunities:

  1. Seeing a research centre start from nothing and evolve into a huge enterprise (700+ participants with 350+ annual follow-ups)
  2. Meeting and talk to participants year after year and update them on research
  3. Being part of two clinical trials
  4. Travelling to multiple conferences
  5. Meeting incredible people

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

  1. I found it really beneficial to join a peer writing group. I wish I would have joined one from the get-go. It really helped me.
  2. I thought writing fellowship applications was a good experience that made me evaluate my future goals, how far I was from those goals now and what steps I need to take to get there. It's a process I really didn't do enough. I think it's important to constantly make progress and be able to track it. Taking a step back to review your goals is worth the time it takes and I suggest doing that maybe once a semester.
  3. I think I should have been more involved with the McGill community. I really like solving problems and I think there are several outlets for this. I was on the McGill Human Ethics committee and involved with the Brain Reach program. These were really great experiences and wish I would have taken the time to be part of more initiatives or student opportunities.

Do you have any additional experiences or advice that you'd like to share with prospective Douglas trainees?

Save money. It's not because you are a student that you can’t manage this one. It adds up quickly. Always have an exit strategy. Always plan your next thing. Figure out if what you are doing fits in your overarching goals.

Fight back, but also learn to that sometimes it's not worth the energy. If something bugs you, take care of it right away. If you don't know something, it's ok to ask, that is why you are there. Celebrate everything even negative feedback...be grateful you got some!

Sarah McIlwaine

May 2019 Trainee spotlight

Supervisor: Jai Shah, MD

Degree: Graduate Student - Master's

Year of Study: Year 3

Program of Study: Psychiatry

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

I've wanted to do research in early psychosis since I had the opportunity to coordinate a drama group at the Levinschi House at the Douglas. This unique experience drove my desire to work with individuals experiencing a first episode of psychosis and explore ways in which current services can be further developed. Thus, PEPP-Montreal was a natural fit.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas? (e.g. studies, employment, travel, which university, etc.) *

I was an undergraduate student at Concordia University completing an Honours degree in Psychology. During this time, I volunteered at the Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders Laboratory, and my Honours thesis focused on the belief that contamination can spread among students with contamination fear. Following this, I worked as a research coordinator at the Stress and Developmental Psychopathology Laboratory at Concordia, and worked on a longitudinal project examining the relationship between oxytocin, emotional processing, and memory in individuals who had remitted from a major depressive episode.

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less) 

Specialized services for young people at risk for psychosis are primarily symptom-based, and focus on preventing the onset of psychosis. However, many young people who are diagnosed as at-risk do not develop psychosis later on. As such, my Master's work aims to identify and describe the needs of youth currently receiving such specialized care and how their needs change over time, with the ultimate goal of determining ways in which our services can be further developed to meet their needs.

What excites you most about your research? 

I have the privilege of listening to the stories of young people who are help-seeking and want their voices heard. What excites me most is to bring these stories to light in order to promote the delivery of services that are more tailored to the needs of young people.

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

Boring answer: Ask for help when you need it. There were times that I thought I could handle issues that I came across during the implementation of my research project on my own. However, I soon discovered that doing so made the experience more stressful. I learned that research is a collaborative experience (even if you’re a student working on your own project), and asking fellow students for help to read over drafts, brainstorm ideas, problem solve, or even just vent about life, is a key part to making your Master’s a good experience. I wish I had known this a little sooner. Real answer: Do not reject the wonderful comfort of a onesie pajama, you fool. Wearing a onesie while working on data and writing makes the experience exponentially better.

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

Your trainee experience is what you make of it. Go into it with positivity and confidence- believe people when they tell you you’re doing a good job. Go into it too knowing that you can and should make time for yourself (your research doesn’t have to be your life if you don’t want it to be). I particularly struggled with the latter coming into my last year- I felt like I had to choose between my passion (art) and my research career. It took a while for me to realize that I can do both, and that realization was quite freeing. I now do my best to integrate and make space for both, and I think that has made me a better artist and researcher. In short, you’re in control!

Derek Albert

April 2019 Trainee spotlight

Supervisor: Thomas G. Brown, Ph.D.

Co-Supervisor: Marie Claude Ouimet, Ph.D.

Degree: Graduate Student - PhD

Year of Study: Year 3

Program of Study: Psychiatry

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

My supervisors, who work a the Douglas, gave me the opportunity to study exactly what I wanted (i.e. mind wandering) in a context that I found to be pragmatic and useful (i.e. transportation safety).

What did you do before coming to the Douglas? (e.g. studies, employment, travel, which university, etc.)

I transferred to McGill from the University of Lethbridge part way through my undergraduate degree in Psychology. For a year after completing my undergraduate, I worked as a research assistant at the McGill Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, studying visual attention and eye-tracking methodology. When I started my master’s, I decided that I wanted to study something a little more practical. Fortunately, when I joined Dr. Brown’s lab at the Douglas, I was able to apply the knowledge and skills that I had gained with eye-tracking to my transportation safety research using driving simulation.

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less):

Road traffic crashes kill more young people, aged 16-25, than any other factor globally. I study how state and trait mind wandering (i.e., task-unrelated and/or stimulus independent thoughts and feelings) can interfere with daily performance of critical tasks, such as driving, in this population. Additionally, I study how complementary factors, such as mood, and potential interventions, such as mindfulness training, can modulate the impact of mind wandering on performance.

What excites you most about your research?

I study one of the most intimate aspects of human experience, which is inherently private, given that mind wandering is characterized by a subjective departure from the intersubjectively shared context of the present moment. Studying this phenomenon involves synthesizing multiple data streams (e.g., subjective experience, physiology, behaviour) in order to get a complete picture. Also, given how ubiquitous mind wandering is (e.g., up to %50 of waking hours on average), understanding where the mind goes, how it gets there, and why it leaves, can have huge implications for daily functioning. It is an honour to make even a small contribution to this field.

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

I'm extremely thankful for all the people I've met and the opportunities that have presented themselves, including my supervisors and being offered a spot in their labs. If I had to give my former self any advice, it would be to trust more that things will work out and to not waste so much time and energy worrying about the small stuff. People come and go and opportunities arise and pass and if you miss out this time, there's always a next time. But simultaneously, I would tell myself to make the most of what life has to offer and seize the moment! Life is full of lessons, and if you're not learning, then you're not paying enough attention or taking enough chances!

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

Keep an open mind and a collaborative spirit. Work with many different people and sample as many perspectives as possible — scientifically, professionally, and personally. Use your training experience as an opportunity to learn about yourself and who you'd like to become. Push yourself, but know your limits. Challenge your superiors, but respect and consider their feedback. Take care of yourself, everyone needs a break from time to time!

Laura Kervezee

May 2018 Trainee Spotlight

Diane B. Boivin and Nicolas Cermakian

Postdoctoral Fellow

Year of Study:
Year 2

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas? *

Towards the end of my PhD, I had a clear picture in my mind of the next: I wanted to continue doing research in the field of circadian rhythms. More precisely, it was my goal to use powerful -omics methods that have become available in the past decades to study physiological processes on a molecular level in humans. However, I knew there weren’t many opportunities out there that would suit these interests and I was not sure where to start looking. By chance, I found out that Dr. Diane B. Boivin and Dr. Nicolas Cermakian were looking for a postdoc to work on their collaborative project on the effect of circadian disruption on the human circadian transcriptome. Having experience with human circadian research, I was a good fit for the project. Excited to be granted such a unique opportunity, I packed my bags, jumped across the Atlantic Ocean (figuratively speaking) and started my postdoctoral research at the Douglas.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas? (e.g. studies, employment, travel, which university, etc.) *

I did my PhD at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. My research focused on the optimization of pharmacological treatments by taking into account 24-hour rhythms in physiological processes that are involved in the absorption, metabolism, excretion, and effects of drugs.

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less) *

Circadian disruption is thought to contribute to the long-term adverse health effects that have been associated to night shift work, such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disorders, sleep problems, and various types of cancer. The goal of my research is to investigate the consequences of acute circadian disruption in humans on a molecular level using transcriptomic (and other omics) approaches. This research will enhance the understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying circadian disruption and will be instrumental in advancing the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of shift work-related health concerns.

What excites you most about your research? *

Since the early days of my undergraduate degree, I have been fascinated by the notion that our body contains an internal circadian clock that anticipates the daily changes in our environment through an ingenious feedback loop of genes and molecules that are present in virtually every cells. On a daily basis, I have the privilege to study this phenomenon and uncover new ways in which the circadian clock influences our physiology on a molecular level. In general, the field of circadian biology is a very multidisciplinary field that has many untapped therapeutic opportunities and I am very motivated to continue to contribute to this research area in order to exploit these opportunities.

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

I have always - somewhat naively - followed my curiosity and I have always trusted that I would find my way to a next great opportunity. So far, this strategy has worked out for me, but looking back it might have been useful to have a plan B (and a plan C) in case things hadn’t gone so smoothly.

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

It’s easy to get swallowed up by your research, but don’t forget to take a step back every once in a while to reflect on your accomplishment and dream about your future.


Daniel Almeida

Étudiant en vedette d'octobre 2017

Gustavo Turecki

Niveau d'études:
Doctorat, 4ème année

Programme d'études:

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi de vous joindre au Douglas?

Ever since I first started my academic career I've known that I wanted to study the neurobiological basis of depression. Wanting to work with humans, I was immediately attracted to my supervisor’s research program on depression and suicide. I choose to come to the Douglas to be able to do this type of meaningful work and have access to post-mortem human brain samples through our research institute’s brain bank.

Que faisiez-vous avant de venir au Douglas?

Prior to graduate school I completed a HBSc in Physiology and Psychology at the University of Toronto. I was also involved in various suicide support centers across the Greater Toronto area.

Dites-nous du bien de votre recherche en trois phrases ou moins.

Early life is characterized by a heightened sensitivity and ability of the brain to change in response to the developing child’s environment. Adverse experiences during this period, therefore, have the potential to lead to negative psychological outcomes all the way into adulthood.  The goal of my research is to understand how severe childhood abuse results in cell-type specific epigenetic changes in prefrontal pyramidal neurons of individuals who were depressed and died by suicide.

Qu’est ce qui vous excite le plus par rapport à votre recherche?

The thing that excites me most about research is that I'm actively creating knowledge that may one day be used to inform clinical care of patients suffering with a mental illness.

Si vous pouviez remonter dans le temps, que changeriez-vous?

If I could go back in time to when I first started graduate school I'd tell my younger self to think big and ask questions that address current limitations of the field. It was only further along into my graduate training that I've really began to understand this concept.

Des conseils pour des étudiants ou stagiaires intéressés à se joindre au Douglas?

I think that the best advice I can give to future trainees is to remember that during the lows of research, where nothing seems to be working, you should think positively and know that everyday brings you closer to answering the big questions in your field. The feeling of accomplishment that your future self will experience outweighs all of the trials and tribulations your past self endured.

Lei Cao

Stagiaire post-doctorale en vedette de mai 2017

Suzanne King 

Moshe Szyf 

Niveau d'études
Postdoctoral Fellow,  Year 5 

Programme d'études
Effect of prenatal maternal stress on children's DNA methylation profile and physical development. 

(Note: les questions sont traduites, mais nous présentons les réponses en version originale)

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi de vous joindre au 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. 

Que faisiez-vous avant de venir au 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).

Dites-nous du bien de votre recherche en trois phrases ou moins.

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.

Qu’est ce qui vous excite le plus par rapport à votre recherche?

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. 

Si vous pouviez remonter dans le temps, que changeriez-vous?

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. 

Des conseils pour des étudiants ou stagiaires intéressés à se joindre au Douglas?

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


Richard Boyce

Étudiant en vedette de mars 2017

Sylvain Williams

Antoine Adamantidis (now at University of Bern)

Niveau d'études
PhD student, year 6

Programme d'études
Integrated Program in Neuroscience

(Note: les questions sont traduites, mais nous présentons les réponses de l'étudiant en version originale)

Pourquoi avez-vous choisi de vous joindre au 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.

Que faisiez-vous avant de venir au 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.  

Dites-nous du bien de votre recherche en trois phrases ou moins.

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.

Qu’est ce qui vous excite le plus par rapport à votre recherche?

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.

Si vous pouviez remonter dans le temps, que changeriez-vous?

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).