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:
- Seeing a research centre start from nothing and evolve into a huge enterprise (700+ participants with 350+ annual follow-ups)
- Meeting and talk to participants year after year and update them on research
- Being part of two clinical trials
- Travelling to multiple conferences
- Meeting incredible people
If you could go back in time and give your "younger self" advice, what would you do differently?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!