Grade 11 student shares unique learning opportunity with alum outside the classroom.
Nicole Park, Class of 2004, was among the six alumnae panelists who joined us for Trafalgar Castle School’s I-Think discussion back in December where she shared her experiences and the path that has led to her exciting career in research.
Nicole’s interest in cancer research began at the age of nine when a cousin was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. “A few years later I happened to look down a brightfield microscope and saw for my first time, human chromosomes in metaphase,” said Nicole. “I was so inspired and truly felt my passion for genetics ignite at that moment.”
For the past ten years, Nicole has been actively working toward becoming an educator and leader in cancer research completing a Bachelor of Science Honours in Molecular Genetics at Queen’s University in Kingston; a Masters degree in Pathology at Western University in London; and is now completing her Doctoral studies with Dr. Peter Dirks, a pioneer in the brain cancer stem cell field at the Hospital for Sick Children (Sick Kids) in Toronto. Upon completion of her PhD, Nicole will apply for a post-doctoral fellow where she will work to establish herself as an independent cancer researcher. After a couple of post-doctoral positions, she plans to apply for an assistant professor position at a university.
Nicole’s passion and personal experiences really resonated with Grace a Grade 11 student, who had been learning about molecular biology and genetics in her classes at Trafalgar. Coupled with her existing interest in research and medicine, Grace took the time to speak with Nicole following the panel discussion and the idea of a site visit evolved.
“It was really inspiring to see alumnae share what their Trafalgar experience meant to them and to learn how this experience influenced their career path,” said Grace. “They were all wonderful role models and great examples of the power of women in the workforce.”
On what would have otherwise been a regular school day, Grace recently commuted downtown to the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning, a brand new state-of-the-art facility in Toronto, where Nicole conducts her research along with all the researchers for Sick Kids.
“It was so cool to have a current Trafalgar student shadow me for the day,” said Nicole. “It felt as though I already knew Grace – as if the Big Sister/Little Sister program was in full effect! I think the experiences that we share as Trafalgar students are so unique and special that it really unifies us in an eternal way.”
They began their day with an overview of Nicole’s research on glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive adult brain cancer. Her research aims to better understand the biology of glioblastoma and normal brain stem cells to ultimately improve treatment options for patients fighting this devastating disease. Following the research overview, Grace donned a lab coat and entered the Tissue Repair Room with Nicole where they spent the next two hours exploring glioblastoma cells from two different patients. In their experiment, they introduced a well-known stem cell pathway drug into the culture media to see how the cells responded.
“The idea is that by stopping the pathways in the cells that promote stem cell behaviour the cells will become mature cells and no longer divide,” said Nicole. “Once the drug was added we put the cells onto a plate so that I can measure the difference in the number of cancer cells treated with or without the drug a week from now.”
“The entire day was incredible and well beyond my expectations,” said Grace. “One of the highlights for me in the lab was that I was actually able to apply some of what I had been learning in class to a real-life lab setting.”
Next on the day’s agenda was a short walk to the University of Toronto for a seminar on molecular biology where Grace sat in on a presentation by two students who shared their own research and experiences.
Back at the lab, Grace’s visit culminated in a one-hour session with Nicole’s mentor, Dr. Dirks, Staff Neurosurgeon at Sick Kids, specializing in the surgical treatment for childhood brain tumours and brain vascular malformations.
Throughout their discussion Dr. Dirks talked about some of his own research, highlighted some of the greatest discoveries in neuroscience in general, and shared a number of resources for Grace to go away with to explore on her own.
“Dr. Dirks shared his passion for research and explained how it offers him new ways to do what he does in surgery every day, but also stressed that everything in the lab is sparked by your own interests, so you have to truly love what you do,” said Grace.
Grace, who plans to pursue a career in the Life Sciences, set out for the day hoping to gain some insight into the world of research and found herself in a boardroom; university lecture hall; world-renowned lab; and sitting down with one of the leading researchers in pediatric neurosurgeons. Not bad for her first day at ‘work’!
When Nicole was asked about her experience as an alumnae mentor, she had this to say: “A truly important aspect of this collaboration was the ability for me to give back to Trafalgar in some way. I am here today because of my experiences at Trafalgar. To inspire and lead a current Trafalgar student, in a way, completes the circle for me. It was there where I found my inspiration for the sciences and developed leadership skills through opportunities unique to Trafalgar. What I would say to any alum considering this is simply: DO IT!!!! It’s one day to potentially make a huge impact on someone’s life. And what better opportunity than to inspire one of our own.”