Q & A: Melissa McLellan

A PhD student at The Francis Crick Institute, biochem alumna Melissa McLellan shares her story and tips for success.

Laura Vega - 15 June 2017

Melissa McLellan is just finishing her master's program in biochemistry at the University of Alberta and already has a clear path for the next stage of her career-she earned a competitive place for her PhD at The Francis Crick Institute in London.

The Francis Crick Institute is an emerging, yet prestigious and globally-renowned hub for health science research, dedicated to understanding the biology underneath the development of diseases and discovering new options for prevention and treatment. Currently the institute operates under the direction of Nobel Prize laureate Sir Paul Nurse. This year, McLellan was one of the 40 selected students out of more than 1,000 applicants. She will be starting her program in September, with her research focus on the role of protein phosphatases on tissue architecture and cell growth control, both of which are important factors commonly found in human tumours.

In this Q & A she shares her story and tips for future students wanting to follow her footsteps.

How did you first become interested in this PhD?

I was finishing up my BSc here at the U of A and during my final year joined Charles Holmes' lab to complete my undergraduate honours project. At the time I was unsure of what I wanted to do after my degree, I never thought it would be research.

When joining the Holmes lab, I found this project interesting. There is a binding interaction between Protein Phosphatase-1 and one of its regulatory subunits, iASPP, which is vastly over-expressed in many cancers leading to the downstream effects of inhibited cell death. Without this cell death, cells in tumours can continue to grow uncontrolled. The goal of this project is to find small molecules that disrupt the binding of these substances. I have been able to discover some molecules and they could potentially be the basis of novel anti-cancer drugs.

I quickly realized that I loved the work I was doing and saw the opportunity to continue this work for another two years while completing a MSc. I was lucky enough to join the lab as a graduate student and was able to continue my project.

A little over a year in, Dr. Holmes suggested looking into applying to the Crick, a brand-new institute with great resources and research projects. I did some research on the Institute and the projects and realized that it was a fantastic opportunity to continue doing work I enjoyed and, on top of it all, in an amazing location. I decided to submit an application and I'm so thankful I did.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I was interested in this research because of its potential to further our understanding of how proteins are regulated in cancer and the potential to help treat this disease.

During my research career, my main goal was to help those who are fighting against disease and contribute to our knowledge to how disease such as cancer operate. This project gave me the perfect opportunity to do so and I hope that it will lead to some major advancements in the field.

What were the biggest challenges in the process to apply for the PhD?

I found there were two major challenges: First, it is difficult to make yourself stand out from the hundreds of other applicants. Second, the Crick had a very structured interview process designed to test your ability to research a new topic and present your own-similar to situations you would see throughout your PhD.

What recommendations do you have to overcome those challenges?

When there are so many students interviewing for one position, every student there will be well-qualified, and it is important that you try to stand out somehow. Typically, the interviewer will open the interview with a general question, such as, "Tell us something about yourself." I find it is important to take advantage of these questions. Try to think of a "quirk" or something unique about yourself and prepare it ahead of time. That way you'll start the interview off on a positive note and it will be more memorable.

Also, use all the resources available to you. I have found that the professors within and outside the department are more than willing to meet with students who need advice or further explanation on a subject you are not familiar with, especially when preparing for an important interview.

Who were your mentors at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry?

Everyone in the department and faculty are great people willing to help any student. I would like to acknowledge everyone in my lab: Charles Holmes, Tamara Arnold, Ply Pasarj and Robyn Millott. They were all willing to help me during my time here as a master's student, on and off the clock. They always made themselves available for me.

Also, all the other students in the biochemistry department. They have created such a community of encouragement amongst themselves. You would be hard-pressed to find a crew more welcoming or supportive.

How do you feel about completing your U of A program?

I have really enjoyed my time during these last few years, so there is definite sadness knowing it is about to come to end. I will miss all the people I met here. On the other hand, I am also very eager to start the next step in my life in a new country. There is a large amount of relief and satisfaction to see all my hard work come to fruition as well.

What advice do you have for current and future students who want to reach competitive global opportunities like you did?

Find something you are passionate about and work hard until you excel at it. Take advantage of and be open to all opportunities that are presented to you. The hard work combined with willingness for experience tend to lead to amazing places, even if you didn't plan for it.