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Hi. I am a 4th year PhD student in the Medical Sciences Graduate Program.

When I decided to go to graduate school, McMaster was a no-brainer. Not only had I completed my Honours BSc in Biochemistry at McMaster (’13) and loved the campus, but I was well aware of how important science and research was to the university. In fact, McMaster has been named the most research intensive university in Canada for the second consecutive year! Surrounded by world-renowned researchers, I feel like I’m getting the best possible opportunities as a student. Along with my research, I spend my time volunteering in the community as a facilitator with the McMaster Children and Youth University, and organizing events as the Co-President of the McMaster Medical Sciences’ Student Association. 

The Kaushic lab

As a PhD student, most of my time is spent in the lab. My research examines the effect of female sex hormones on susceptibility to sexually transmitted viral infections such as the herpes virus. Specifically, I focus on how hormones can influence immune responses in the female reproductive tract. Others in the lab study HIV infection as well, and our research is a combination of basic, clinical and translational science. This work is important because many women are on hormonal contraceptives or hormonal therapies, and this work can really help women make better reproductive health choices. I have learned so much in the lab, and have the pleasure of being supervised by Dr. Charu Kaushic. She is a great leader in the scientific community, and has also provided me with continued mentorship, guidance and support. I feel very fortunate to be conducting my doctoral research in the collaborative environment of the McMaster Immunology Research Centre.

Milestone: First time lecturing!

I have been a teaching assistant for the Health Sciences course titled “Discovering Immunology Today” for the past four years, and was recently given the opportunity to be a guest lecturer. This was an exciting, albeit nerve-wracking, experience! I had never lectured before, and was given the task to teach 120 first-year students about HIV and mucosal infections. I was fortunate to have help in designing my lectures from my supervisor, Dr. Kaushic, an expert in HIV research. I was also able to incorporate helpful techniques I learned while completing the Teaching and Learning Certificate of Completion offered by McMaster’s MacPherson Institute – a support for leadership and excellence in teaching. Overall, the lectures went well and I received great feedback from the students. Most importantly, I had several students approach me and ask how they could also get involved in similar research! It was a great learning experience and I hope to have more opportunities to teach in the future.

Science in the community

Throughout my undergraduate years, I worked a lot with children and youth. I was a camp coordinator during the summers with the City of Toronto, and then later I was a program facilitator where I taught children about science in a fun and interactive way. When I learned about the McMaster Children and Youth University (MCYU) program, I knew I needed to get involved! MCYU provides free STEM-based programming to children and youth across Hamilton. I have been a facilitator with the MCYU in the City program since 2014, and the workshop my group has developed is called “Contagion”. The premise of “Contagion” is to teach participants about viruses in an interactive manner. We go into local schools, community centers and libraries to present our workshop, while using problem-based learning to guide the participants. Our workshop has been well-received by the public over the years.

McMaster Children and Youth University

Most recently, we got to work on a special project in collaboration with the Dundas Central Elementary School which focused on the history of the 1918 influenza pandemic. As facilitators, we developed three workshops to help teach the students about the biology of the flu virus, how it spreads and infects people, and strategies to help fight against infection. In turn, the student taught us about the history of the flu in Dundas. The project culminated with the development of an interactive website (https://mcyu.ca/flu-pandemic-1918/) that was entered into a national contest called “Recovering Canada,” organized by a heritage group called Defining Moments Canada which promotes digital storytelling in history. Our project won first place in it’s respective category, and it was very exciting to see all of our work and the students’ work pay off! This collaboration also involved other community members and organizations including the Dundas Museum, where an exhibit based on the project was featured.

After working with MCYU for so many years, this influenza project was a great way to apply all of the skills I had gained as a facilitator on a larger scale and help create a long-lasting resource which will hopefully be used as a tool by students for many years to come. Working with MCYU has definitely been one of the highlights of my time as a graduate student!

Learn more about the project

Global mentorship

Over the summer I had the opportunity to work for the Mitacs Globalink program as a mentor. This program gives students the opportunity to travel to different countries and attend host universities as interns over the summer months. McMaster University acts as a host to students from across the world, and I was assigned to assist a group of students from China, Germany and Ukraine. My responsibilities included giving students a tour of campus, helping them navigate the city of Hamilton, planning social activities for them, and providing any general assistance during their internships. For one of our socials, we traveled to the Toronto Islands, where we were joined by Globalink interns from Ryerson University, as seen in this group photo. I learned a lot from the students, and tried my best to make their visit here at McMaster as welcoming as possible.

Travelling the world…in the name of science!

Thanks to financial assistance from travel awards and scholarships, I was fortunate to attend several international conferences this year! I presented research posters at the International Congress of Mucosal Immunology in Washington, DC, the Keystone Symposium on Immunological Memory in Austin, Texas, and the Mucosal Immunology Conference in Oxford, UK. Presenting at these conferences provided me with invaluable feedback from experts in the field of immunology, and I also learned about cutting-edge research being conducted across the globe. In addition, these were all places I had never traveled to before, so not only did I get to share my research with world-renowned scientists and network with trainees from different research groups, but I also got to explore new cities. Attending these conferences has expanded my depth of knowledge and added immensely to my research.

Beyond the lab

I have acted as the Co-President of the McMaster Medical Sciences’ Student Association (MMSSA) for three years now, and our primary aim is to plan social and academic events for Medical Science graduate students. Some events we have held in the past include Halloween and Holiday socials, seminars on how to prepare for Committee Meetings, and workshops on how to write CIHR applications. Graduate school can get overwhelming, and hopefully these events provide both assistance with academic matters, while also providing safe and relaxing events where students can unwind and have fun. We have also started to collaborate with other student groups to try and spread communication between different programs within the Health Sciences Graduate Program.

Michael Kamin Hart Memorial Scholarship

Not only is the Kaushic lab part of the McMaster Immunology Research Centre, but Dr. Kaushic is also a member of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR) at McMaster. IIDR is also a very collaborative research group at McMaster, with a diverse range of pathogens and diseases being studied by the talented faculty and trainees. IIDR holds an annual trainee research day, which I have helped to plan and have presented at over the past few years. This year, I had the honour of being selected as the winner of the Michael Kamin Hart Memorial Scholarship (Doctoral Award), a prestigious scholarship established in the memory of a former IIDR Student. This award is supported by friends and family of Michael, and is given to a student at the undergraduate, Masters and PhD level who demonstrates leadership, academic excellence, and a genuine passion for scientific discovery; attributes also displayed by Michael. I was truly honoured to receive this award, especially because of what it represents. Along with receiving the award, I was provided the opportunity to present an oral presentation of my research at the research symposium, and had the privilege of attending a special lunch with members of the IIDR Executive Committee and members of the Hart family. The generosity and continued support demonstrated by the Hart family over the years has given students like myself additional financial assistance, which helps make a tremendous difference in our lives.

Final Thoughts

It has definitely been a busy, but productive and successful, year! I have accomplished a lot of goals, passed my Comprehensive Exams required for my degree, travelled across several cities and even continents with my research, and tried my best to stay involved with both the McMaster community and the City of Hamilton. I am now set to face my toughest task yet; completing my PhD. There is a lot of stress and pressure involved, but I know if I continue to work hard there are no limits! One thing is for certain, there is no where else I would rather be doing this than McMaster!

Thank you

I have been fortunate to receive financial support from various bursaries and scholarships over the past year (and over my time at McMaster). Awards including the CIBC Graduate Bursary Award, Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and the Michael Kamin Hart Memorial Scholarship were all made possible by generous donors who recognize the importance of helping fund graduate students such as myself. Finances in graduate school can be quite difficult to manage, with factors such as the cost of tuition, rent and living expenses involved, and so any help goes a long way. I am very grateful for the financial support I have received, which has allowed me to have such a full and exciting year!