FRESH FACES II Q & A with Mackenzie Coatham

First PhD student in obstetrics and gynecology at UAlberta shares her experience paving the way on women's cancer research.

Laura Vega - 11 September 2017

Mackenzie Coatham has drawn a lot of attention at the University of Alberta in the last few years. In addition to being the first PhD student in obstetrics and gynecology, her academic achievements are turning heads. She was the recipient of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship - Doctoral Award (2017), the U of A William Herbert Young Cancer Research Graduate Studentship (2016) and a Women and Children's Health Research Institute studentship (2016).

Carrying a strong background in biochemistry with undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Lethbridge, Coatham was recruited to the U of A through the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's Graduate Program in Maternal and Child Health (MatCH), where students can complete short-term rotations in different fundamental science or clinical research groups prior to beginning a graduate degree in a laboratory of their choosing. Coatham is now working with Lynne Postovit, oncology professor and co-director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA).

In this Q & A, Coatham shares her experience as a pioneering PhD student and how she's applying her expertise to improve the treatment of cancers that affect women.

What is the focus of your research project?

My project focuses on endometrial cancer. While it is mostly curable, there are still certain subsets that are highly aggressive and resistant to current treatment strategies. In Dr. Postovit's lab, we focus our attention on dedifferentiated endometrial cancer-these tumours are unique since portions of these masses contain regions made of cells that most closely resemble stem cells.

Through my studies I hope to answer the question as to how these stem-cell-like components are initiated and whether these undifferentiated regions of the tumours are what causes metastasis and therapy resistance in these patients.

Why did you choose this topic?

Cancer research has always been something I have been interested in as many women in my family have been afflicted with the disease. I have always been fascinated by science and I wanted to focus my PhD studies on discovering more about cancers that primarily affect women so we can treat them more effectively.

What is the biggest challenge to tackle in this project?

The subset of cancer we are studying is somewhat rare, and often hard to diagnose because the size of the undifferentiated regions of these endometrial tumours can vary substantially. We have to derive our model of the disease using gene-editing or CRISPR technology in endometrial cancer cell lines. Anytime that you use cutting-edge methodologies there can be learning curves, but it is also exciting to be at the forefront of discovery.

What has it been like to be UAlberta's first PhD student in OBGYN?

It has been a privilege to be the first PhD student in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the U of A. Not only do I have the support of their excellent and well-established clinical training program, but I have been able to form countless connections with other departments such as oncology as we develop this program for future students.

Being a part of this department has exposed me to clinical research and has shown me how important it is that basic science researchers and clinical researchers collaborate to find solutions by putting patients first.

Who have been your mentors at the U of A?

My two supervisors, Dr. Postovit and Dr. Cheng-Han Lee, have such enthusiasm for their work that it is contagious.They are extremely knowledgeable and influential people and they both possess ample passion and positivity, which is a trait I find refreshing and important in academia.

Dr. Denise Hemmings, the Obstetrics and Gynecology graduate program coordinator, has been one of my mentors at the U of A as well. As a female scientist, I feel fortunate to have so many successful role models to emulate. Dr. Hemming's work with the Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology (WISEST) unit has been very inspirational to me, as it is an organization that enables students, especially women, to engage in careers in science, engineering and technology. I volunteer with this program as a way to express my gratitude for the tremendous experiences that I have been given since pursuing my secondary education.

What are your plans or projects for the future in addition to your PhD?

I absolutely will continue to volunteer and support institutes like CRINA and the Women and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI) throughout my PhD studies. I am extremely grateful for the support of WCHRI as it allowed me to focus on obtaining results for my project while also providing me with opportunities to travel to present my preliminary findings.

Being a part of the trainee-led CRINA committee has provided me with the chance to promote what is being done by cancer researchers across the university campus through our monthly newsletters. As scientists, I think it is important for us to be accountable to the society at large but to also ensure we disseminate our findings to our fellow researchers so that fields in their entirety can keep progressing and building on each other's work.

What advice would you give to other students about to start their own graduate research projects or who want to compete for awards like those you earned?

As undergraduate students, make sure to take time to find opportunities to learn outside of the classroom setting-discover what research is being done at your university in the fields you are interested in and apply for summer research positions. Also make sure that you join clubs and associations where you can meet professors and members of their research groups. Participation in extracurricular groups can allow you to pick up skills associated with teamwork and communication that will be extremely useful if pursuing graduate education.

At the beginning of graduate research projects, look for opportunities to volunteer with different organizations and collaborate with other research groups to increase your chances of being competitive for awards. These kinds of activities show leadership and may result in the publications that make your applications stand out.