2018 Finalist: Outstanding Leaders Of Tomorrow sponsored by Alberta Economic Development And Trade
Mentorship making a difference in age-related health research
As a MD/PhD student, Michèle DuVal is acquiring a unique skill set that will allow her to effectively translate research findings to the clinical setting. In her graduate research, Ms. DuVal’s multi-disciplinary in vivo model system work has led to eight published manuscripts. She has held a multitude of diverse senior leadership positions and community service roles and has demonstrated initiative and involvement in mentorship, outreach, and intellectual property development.
What problem did you see a need to solve and how did you solve this real-world problem?
The real-world problem that I’ve been interested in is related to the aging of the population in the first world. As people are living longer, there are a lot of age-related health problems that are becoming more prevalent, including neurodegenerative diseases such as types of dementia. Vision loss is also due to a type of neurodegeneration. I’m interested in figuring out ways to slow down and reverse the degeneration so that people can continue to function well into old age.
We have been using an in-vivo model with zebrafish. They have very good vision so they are great little models to understand why degeneration happens. We’re trying to develop and test tools using the fish first to see if we can slow down or reverse these degenerations.
I’m also getting into the motor neuron side, using the same fish. We’re studying why motor neurons sometimes start to die, leaving people with various severities of paralysis. We’re looking at how we best target what’s causing the neurons to die to slow down the disease progression. One of our really exciting projects has led to a candidate therapy, using a drug already on the market for another unrelated use. It has some promise in slowing down motor neuron death and other problems related to those diseases.
What has been the impact of your outreach initiatives?
I’ve had two major interests when it comes to serving the community and providing mentorship. Students need to be trained to develop critical thinking skills and produce research that is the foundation for a lot of decisions made by government. I’ve had the pleasure to train a lot of students in my supervisor Dr. Ted Allison’s lab over the years.
We give students a rigorous education in critical thinking, in research ethics, and rigorous animal ethics, too. I’ve trained over 10 students now. I’ve had a lot of pleasure mentoring students who have gone on to work in various other disciplines. Hopefully they have taken those skills to contribute to a better society.
I’ve also done a lot of work for the Graduate Students’ Association, working on advocacy and representing graduate students to the local community. A lot of my work has been centered on placing students on various representative positions such as serving on committees and adjudicating awards for other students. I’m trying to keep the community very engaged and active.
There are a few aspects that have been important for me. One is making sure women and minorities in STEM get the support they need to keep going. We’ve reached a point in a lot of STEM fields were lots of women and minorities are involved and the balance is now more reflective of population ratios, which is great.
Unfortunately, in the higher levels of STEM careers, we’re still seeing the atrophy of women and minorities. We’re seeing progress towards the higher levels of academia like professorships and leaders in certain industries. The key is to keep it going, encourage women to continue to pursue those careers and give them the support to show that everyone can do this. I’ve really enjoyed mentoring women.
Has being in Alberta helped you find success?
Alberta has a lot of very talented people with wonderful networks, especially in the health research areas, to provide opportunities. The University of Alberta has a wonderful mentorship culture where people are always happy to teach others. On a day-to-day basis, it’s great to talk to people who will give their honest opinion. It’s a rapidly changing field and the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary are known to be good supporters of innovation in the pursuit of really cool frontier projects, especially in health care. There is a spirit here to pursue questions, for the sake of creating better healthcare, but also to pursue knowledge because it’s hard to predict what’s going to prove useful later.
Who have been your major supporters?
In addition to Alberta Innovates, the faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the U of A are always watching out for how they’re going to continue to support their faculty and students so the labs can keep developing research. They work very hard to help us be successful.
Dr. Allen Underhill, the director of the MD/PhD program, is one of our fiercest advocates. He works very hard to keep our program well-funded.
I must thank my supervisor, Dr. Ted Allison. If I’m a good mentor, which hopefully I am, it’s because of him; he’s a good mentor and very ethical person.
What are the plans for the future?
I would love to try to open my own lab and be a clinician scientist. I would like to spend some time seeing patients and interact with them, understand what they go through daily and what their values are. I would then bring that back to the lab to continue to pursue the very cool questions that hopefully will have big impacts on the lives of aging Canadians who are facing these scary age-related diseases.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
It’s really exciting and a big honour to have my name on that list. No matter the outcome, I am proud of making it this far.