Five summer student researchers that went on to do great things

The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry celebrates its 50th summer student research day on Nov. 3.

Amy Samson - 3 November 2017

Lazy days of summer? Not for the 200 summer student researchers who participated in stimulating projects under the supervision of Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry members this year from May through August.

The largest program of its kind in Canada is celebrating its 50th summer student research day on November 3, 2017, giving current undergraduate and medical students the chance to present their research in a conference format to participants from years past.

The first two summer student research days took place in 1969 and since then it has been an annual event each fall. In the 1970s, the student prizes awarded at the research day were made possible by the Michael Emery Memorial Fund. From the early 1980s onwards, these summer research awards have been supported by the Medical Alumni Association, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, Alberta Innovates and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Today, the summer student research day continues to be held in honour of Michael Emery who joined the U of A division of orthopaedic surgery in 1964. The printed program at research day each year reads:

Apart from… [Emery's] orthopaedic practice, his greatest professional satisfaction came from his contact with medical students through his teaching, and from his own personal involvement with research. His untimely death on August 20, 1967, at the age of 34 robbed us of a teacher-clinical-scientist of the highest potential.

Several former students who completed summer research projects at the U of A's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry have gone on to achieve a number of significant accomplishments. Here are five of these students who went on to do great things:

Dennis Modry: first heart and heart-lung combined transplants in Western Canada

Dennis Modry graduated from the U of A's school of medicine in 1973. During the summer between his first and second year at the University of Alberta he worked without pay in the Surgical-Medical Research Institute doing heart-lung transplants in animal models. Modry presented on this work at the second student research day held on September 30, 1969.

After training in surgery in Montreal, Modry accepted a position at Stanford, where he was appointed chief of the transplant division. While at Stanford he performed approximately 23 heart transplants. He was recruited back to the U of A in the 1980s with the promise that he could pilot a heart-lung transplant program. In July 1985, Modry performed the first heart transplant in Western Canada. In August 1986, he went on to perform the first heart-lung combined transplant in Western Canada. The heart and lung transplant program at University of Alberta Hospital is now one of the busiest in the country.

Barbara Romanowski: a leader in sexually transmitted disease research

In 1970, Barbara Romanowski presented at the summer student research day on a project that she undertook with what was then called the Department of Community Medicine.

Since completing her MD at the U of A in 1973, followed by specialized training in infectious diseases, Romanowski has continued to be actively involved in community and public health. From 1979 until 1998, she served as the director of Alberta's sexually transmitted diseases (STD) program. During this period she was involved with Edmonton's AIDS Network, now HIV Edmonton. She gave a number of talks and helped to train the Network's staff and volunteers. In 1989, she received the organization's second annual Bob Mills Leadership award.

She has also been involved in human papillomavirus (HPV) clinical trials for more than a decade and has published extensively on a variety of STDs. She is currently a clinical professor in the division of infectious diseases at the U of A, and is a member of the expert working group for the Canadian guidelines on sexually transmitted infections.

Sir John Bell: pioneer in the clinical application of genetics

Sir John Bell completed a bachelor's in medical science (honors) at the U of A in 1975. A year before graduating, he and Raymond Yee won first place at the 1974 summer student research day.

Originally from Edmonton, Bell and his family have long ties to the U of A, and particularly to the school of medicine. His grandfather, Irving B. Bell, was the first professor of therapeutics at the U of A.

Bell's research has contributed to the understanding of immune activation in a range of autoimmune diseases. His work has shed light on genetic determinants of susceptibility to type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Following Bell's undergraduate degree at the U of A he went to the UK as a Rhodes Scholar, completing his medical training at Oxford University before receiving further training at Stanford University. He returned to the UK in 1987, and in 1993 founded the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, which is one of the leading centres in the world in genetics, genomics and structural biology. He is currently the Regius professor of medicine at Oxford.

He has received a number of awards and honours including being made a Knight Bachelor for his service to medical science in 2008 and, in 2015, a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. In 2009, he won the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research "for his advances in human genomic science and his global impact on health research and health care policy."

Janet McElhaney: a leader in influenza research

Janet McElhaney completed an MD at the U of A in 1986, winning the Harry Weinlos Prize in Medicine, which is awarded to a student who demonstrates humanitarianism and an excellent academic record.

In an interview with the Edmonton Journal at the 1983 summer research day where she presented, McElhaney stated that, "basic scientists and medical doctors need a link―people to do clinically-oriented research that bridged the gap [between pure research and clinical practice]."

McElhaney is a leader in influenza research, particularly in aging populations. She sits on a number of boards and committees, including, as of 2016, the Institute Advisory Board for Indigenous Peoples' Health, a federal organization that provides advice on supporting the health and wellness of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada.

McElhaney completed a residency in internal medicine, followed by a fellowship in geriatric medicine at the U of A. In 1998, she was recruited from the U of A to the Eastern Virginia Medical School. She has since held positions at the University of Connecticut Health Centre and the University of British Columbia. She currently holds positions with the Health Sciences North Research Institute in Sudbury, Ontario.

Lewis E. Kay: 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award Laureate

Lewis Kay worked as a summer student for four years during his undergraduate degree. In 1981 and 1982, he presented at the summer student research day on the work he had undertaken in the Department of Biochemistry with Brian Sykes. His summer work in Sykes' lab fostered an interest in the theory behind nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which would form the basis of his research at the graduate and post-graduate levels and beyond.

Kay is recognized for developing modern NMR methodologies that allow researchers to visualize protein molecules and track them as they shift and change shape. These methods have shed light on the flexible nature of molecules and how they can form abnormal structures that ultimately lead to disabled states. His findings could pave the way for drug targeting.

Kay grew up in Edmonton and graduated with a bachelor of science in biochemistry from the U of A in 1983, winning the Lieutenant Governor's Gold Medal for highest achievement in the graduating class in the Faculty of Science. He went on to obtain his doctor of philosophy in molecular biophysics from Yale University in 1988, followed by postdoctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health. In 1992, he started a position at the University of Toronto. He is currently a senior scientist in molecular medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, and a Canada Research Chair in Proteomics, Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics.

Kay has won a number of awards and honours including, most recently, being named a 2017 Canada Gairdner International Award Laureate for "the development of modern NMR spectroscopy for studies of biomolecular structure dynamics and function, including applications to molecular machines and rare protein conformations." The Gairdner Award is often a forerunner to the Nobel Prize.

Reflecting back on his experiences as a summer student at the U of A, Kay encouraged future summer students to ask questions, jump in and find areas and specific techniques that interest them, recognizing that they will often be entering projects that are already well underway. He also noted that students should avoid thinking about summer research projects as wrapping up at the end of the summer, but rather to think about how they can stay involved in research throughout the year.