Trainee spotlight

Sarah McIlwaine

Sarah McIlwaine, May 2019 Trainee spotlight

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

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

Laura Kervezee

May 2018 Trainee Spotlight

Supervisors:
Diane B. Boivin and Nicolas Cermakian

Degree:
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

Daniel Almeida

October 2017 Trainee Spotlight

Supervisor:
Gustavo Turecki

Degree:
Graduate student PhD.

Year of study:
Year 4

Program of study:
Neuroscience

Why did you choose to come to the 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.

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

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.

Sell your research in 3 sentences (or less)

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.

What excites you most about your research?

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.

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

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.

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

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

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).