FoMD graduate honoured as top grad student at U of A

Fred Mast receives Governor General's Gold Medal along with his doctorate

Janet Harvey - 2 December 2013

Fred Mast

When Fred Mast returned to Edmonton in mid-November to attend his convocation ceremony, he faced a harsh welcome. Arriving from Seattle's moderate temperatures to full-on Edmonton winter conditions, Mast and his fellow passengers were forced to wait on the plane for an extra 20 minutes before crews could de-ice the frozen doors enough for them to open.

A native of Sherwood Park and veteran of Edmonton's winters, the winner of the Governor General's Gold Medal took it all in stride however.

The Governor General's medal is awarded for academic excellence at the graduate level, recognizing the doctoral graduate at the U of A who achieves the highest academic standing at the institution. "I think it's very nice to have that kind of validation and the recognition that your hard effort pays off, but it's also a humbling experience," said Mast of the honour. "You realize the work and effort it takes for anyone to go through the experience of getting a PhD."

Mast's graduate research in the Department of Cell Biology focused on the peroxisome - an organelle present in many cells that is responsible for a variety of essential metabolic reactions. Mast studied how the peroxisome forms, how it is inherited and its role in a number of serious disorders that typically result in death within the first year of life. The most severe of these is a rare congenital disorder called Zellweger Syndrome. Patients suffer from cranial and facial defects, cataracts, deafness, poor muscle tone, liver disease, renal cysts and have multiple seizures per day. "My work was geared toward trying to understand all of the fundamental aspects of the peroxisome in order to help develop treatment for these disorders," explained Mast.

His interest in this field began as an undergraduate during a lecture by Faculty member Paul Melanҫon on the peroxisome. Mast was immediately intrigued. And then Melanҫon mentioned that one of his colleagues - cell biology chair Richard Rachubinski - happened to be a renowned expert on the peroxisome. Mast's path as a graduate student suddenly seemed clear.

"Fred is a very talented young scientist and a wonderful colleague," said Rachubinski of his former student. "He played a leading role in the development of many of our current research projects. I know that he will quickly be a research leader at his current institution in Seattle."

Mast defended his thesis on August 2 and started a post-doc August 31 at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, where he is also a member of the Institute for Systems Biology. "Systems biology is the next level up from my PhD work studying specific mechanisms in the cell. It's more comprehensive and I'm now studying a variety of infectious diseases. As a grad student I looked at applying my research specifically towards human genetic disorders but a number of infectious parasites rely on the peroxisome as well. It's a bit of a challenge to jump to a new field, but it's very exciting."

No matter where his very promising career takes Mast next, he will always remain grateful for his research experiences at the U of A. "The Department of Cell Biology and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry is a really unique place to do cell biology research," he says. "There's a certain level of recognition for its accomplishments when you're abroad and you say that's where you studied."