Biology

Biochemistry Ph.D. Candidate

by Pam Chamberlain, submitted 2010

What do tiny worms named C. elegans have in common with humans? Quite a bit, it turns out. The nematodes are similar to humans both genetically and metabolically, and Stacey Reinke hopes they’ll help her better understand diseases such as Parkinson’s and Leigh syndrome.

Stacey is a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta’s department of biochemistry, funded by a prestigious full-time award from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research for her work in metabolomics. Stacey is researching genetic mitochondrial mutations, which cause a variety of ailments from Parkinson’s to cancer to diabetes. Her thesis focuses on how genetic diseases affect metabolism and, in turn, how metabolic changes produce symptoms in an ill person.

Stacey’s interest in metabolism began in biology class at Augustana. Then, in the summer between graduating with a Bachelor of Science and beginning her graduate program at the U of A, she did an internship at the Edmonton campus with a professor who was using C. elegans to study mitochondrial problems. Stacey was intrigued to learn that a single genetic mutation can cause vastly different symptoms, ranging from chronic fatigue to fatal diseases in adults to failure-to-thrive in infants. She also visited the lab of a fellow grad student who was having difficulty studying metabolomics in human subjects because factors such as diet, exercise, and stress interfered with the results. It was then that Stacey saw possible connections among mitochondrial disease, metabolism, and C. elegans. She set up her PhD research project and was delighted to discover it worked.

“Research can be daunting and monotonous,” Stacey admits, “but it’s also rewarding because it helps other researchers and clinicians understand genetic diseases better, which may one day lead to better treatments and cures.”

Stacey credits Augustana’s biology professors with giving her a solid foundation from which to approach a graduate program. She remembers Dr. Haave having high expectations for students. “He would often say, ‘Commit this to memory,’” she recalls. “He didn’t just mean ‘Memorize this so you can regurgitate it on an exam only to forget it the next day,’ but ‘Understand it and lock it in your memory.’ To this day there are concepts from his courses that I understand as well as the back of my hand.” Although Stacey earned honours and scholarships each year at Augustana, she says her greatest personal accomplishment was getting an A in Dr. Haave’s histology class.

While Augustana’s professors pushed Stacey to achieve excellence in biology, she learned even more outside the classroom. “I came out of high school expecting to become a focussed career person,” she says. “At Augustana, I realized how much I loved to learn, and I realized how much more there is to life than work. As a result, I’m not as single-minded as I thought I’d be. I’m pursuing a career that affords me time with my family, opportunities to travel, and ongoing learning.”

In the meantime, if her research contributes toward the development of better treatments for mitochondrial diseases, all the better.