The Accidental Researcher

A summer research project with the Department of Family Medicine helps pharmacy student Dimitri Galatis find his passion for research.

Danica Erickson - 09 September 2021

A summer research project with the Department of Family Medicine helps pharmacy student Dimitri Galatis find his passion for research.

By his own admission, Dimitri Galatis loves to talk about bacteria. People say do what you love, and Galatis is an example of how doing what you love can take you on a most unexpected and worthwhile journey. In Galatis’s case, a love of microbiology opened the door to being part of a research project with the potential to provide pain relief to many.

Galatis, who has a microbiology and immunology degree from Dalhousie University in his home province of Nova Scotia, arrived at the University of Alberta to study pharmacy in 2018. This summer, he is working with Department of Family Medicine professors Andrew Cave, a family physician, and Hoan Linh Banh, a pharmacist, to investigate whether the anesthesia drug ketamine can be used topically to relieve neuropathic pain commonly associated with diabetes or having had a shingles infection.

The category of medication most commonly used for neuropathic pain relief, gabapentins, are usually taken in pill form. Unfortunately, gabapentins often cause side effects like drowsiness or the feeling of being sedated, so those suffering from pain are often reluctant to take them. Other available options, such as antidepressants, also come with side-effects. That’s why this research team wants to find a way to deliver ketamine topically to provide pain relief without side effects that compromise patient quality of life. “As a pharmacy student, I think if you can provide a topical solution of almost any medication, it’s worth going that route. This is because a local treatment to an area means you can [aim to] avoid all of the systemic side effects.” Galatis explains.

Many people are familiar with pain relief creams like Voltaren. However, the delivery method the team is researching is a foam formulated by Faculty of Pharmacy Professor Raimar Lobenberg. Lobenberg taught Galatis about pharmaceutics, the design and drug production and how you can make different formulations of drugs, in his first and second year of pharmacy. Lobenberg’s foam has been successful for delivering medications like NSAIDs because skin  absorbs the foam more easily than it absorbs cream.

Galatis’s first experience with research was during the summer of 2020. While in a pharmacy class listening to guest lecturer Tanis Dingle, an assistant professor with the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, he realized he really missed learning about bacteria. Dingle’s lecture reminded him of what excited him during his microbiology studies at Dalhousie and he really wanted to get back in on the conversation about antibiotics, bacteria and fungi. Prior to pandemic restrictions, Galatis reached out to Dingle to see if she was taking any summer research students. She was, and suggested he apply through the Alberta Innovates Summer Studentship program, which he was fortunate to receive. Following his summer studentship with Dingle, he presented his work at Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Annual Summer Students’ Research Day, where he enjoyed gathering together with other summer students to share their research experiences. His work made him confident talking to his peers and providing them with evidence to support his ideas.

After that first positive experience, Galatis knew he wanted to do more research, but with a clinical  focus. He reached out to Banh after seeing a notice she posted on the pharmacy students’ Facebook page asking if there were any people interested in taking part in this research.  The idea of working on a project with a pharmacist  drew him to the opportunity to work with Banh and Cave. Galatis was particularly interested in working directly with patients; conducting interviews to determine their interest in the treatment, and asking them if they would take part in the clinical trial. “I get to hear back from patients directly and see what impact the research is having.” he says. 

Perhaps the most important thing Galatis has learned from his research experience is to trust in his own abilities. He never thought he would be interested in research until he was given the opportunity to do it. Prior to his work over the last two summers, he thought you had to be ultra-passionate about something to do research.  “I’m not super-studious; I’m just interested. I always thought research was only for the very high achievers. I always thought it was above me and I couldn’t partake in it.” He adds “Being given the chance to have discussions with researchers really gave me the sense that they are just ordinary people like me. Anyone can do it.”

He realizes now he is interested in research and acknowledges his newfound passion for being part of an academic committee and becoming a scientific writer and reader. He wasn’t previously interested in academic papers, but now would love to be published as it would be an incredible achievement.  He also now understands the opportunities available to him once he graduates: he will be able to be part of the discussion on treatments of disease and use his passion for helping patients to ensure they have the best possible treatments. He likes knowing he can have a positive influence on something while he’s in school. “Going to [the clinic] on Wednesday doesn’t feel like going to work. It’s always learning lots and having a good time while we are at it. And the days go by so quickly.”

He would tell summer students if they are passionate about a particular subject they learn about in school or if they get into heated debates or conversations with others about certain topics or treatments in medicine, they should consider connecting with professors who study that topic. Chances are, if they have a particular question in mind or something they’d like to dive a little deeper into, they can find a professor willing to support their pursuit of the answers to their questions. Galatis can attest to the positive influence the right opportunity and the right people can have on student researchers. He knows that even just sending the email to a professor to say you are interested in a topic can be intimidating, but e wants other students to remember all the professors in these programs are human too.  “Hoan Linh has given me so much advice and I know that she’ll always be in contact. I know I can reach out to her and it’s really reassuring to have someone like that, even once I start my career. “