Cell biology PhD student goes with the flow in the lab and in life

Studying the relationship between bacteria and intestinal growth stokes researcher and flow-arts aficionado Meghan Ferguson's insatiable scientific curiosity.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 17 April 2020

At the end of a long day in the lab, PhD student Meghan Ferguson can often be found at home with her favourite music on, hula hooping. Ferguson started experimenting with flow arts-a combination of dance, juggling, fire-spinning and object manipulation-about 10 years ago, and she's found it the perfect antidote to the kind of focused intellectual work she's engaged in all day at school.

"It kind of feels like a meditative state, where your brain shuts off and your body goes on autopilot," says Ferguson. "Sometimes I feel like my brain is in high-efficiency mode all day long here, and getting into this other reality feels like I'm just going with the flow."

Letting off steam and finding that flow aren't the only things her hobby does for Ferguson. It also helps her maintain the equilibrium required to overcome the inevitable bumps in the road that come with long-term scientific research projects. "If something doesn't work out, I can more easily say, 'OK, that's not the path I'm supposed to be taking right now'," she says thoughtfully. "It helps me absorb the information in front of me and almost let it direct me."

This ability to sit back and allow life to unfold as it's meant to has served Ferguson well in her time at the University of Alberta. As a graduate of NAIT's Biological Sciences program, Ferguson hadn't really considered a possible future career in academia, but a job as a laboratory technician in the Physiology department here on campus quickly kindled a deep affinity for research. With her newfound passion and the goal of graduate studies stoking her for the long haul ahead, she buckled up and embarked on a bachelor of science degree.

Today, Ferguson is partway through a PhD, working on research with a focus on how bacteria interact with cells in the intestine to modify intestinal growth. She uses fruit flies as her model-their intestine has the same function and similar cell types as that of humans-introducing two single species of bacteria that are very closely related, to study how they affect intestinal growth.

Using microscopy, RNA sequencing and bioinformatics, Ferguson observed how stem cells in the intestine respond to the two bacteria, and determined that one bacterial species causes growth in the intestine as well as in tumours, while the other doesn't. "This bacterium alters immune responses, growth responses and factors that control the shape and adhesion of the stem cells," she explains, "and now we've come to the hard part. Now I have to figure out the 'why' and the 'how.' What is the unknown pathway that is allowing the bacteria to make the stem cells divide uncontrollably?"

Although as a discovery scientist her focus is not on medical practice, her area of research is linked to certain cancers, inflammatory bowel disease and other inflammatory conditions in the intestine, says Ferguson. A balanced bacterial system in the gut is crucial to the proper function of the intestine and development of the immune system. "By understanding how these bacteria cause growth and inflammation to the point where it's no longer beneficial to the host, we can begin to understand better what role the microbiome plays in the development and progression of intestinal diseases such as cancer and inflammatory bowel disease," she says.

Ferguson didn't start out her PhD working with bacteria and growth. In the early stages of working in the lab, she was looking at diet and the microbiome. But a few months in, when she happened to overhear her supervisor, Edan Foley, talking about some interesting developments in his work with inflammation and tumour growth, it sparked something in her. "I've always loved bacteria and immunology, and I've always been really intrigued by stem cells," she says, "so I knew this project would tie all those things together."

Having an open-minded supervisor like Foley, who encouraged her to change directions and follow her passions, has made Ferguson's PhD journey a pleasure, she says. "He's open to ideas and different personalities; he's easy to talk to and down to earth," she says. "It wouldn't be as enjoyable if I didn't have this kind of environment." When looking for a place to pursue graduate studies, says Ferguson, it's important to take the time to find a supervisor you can work with, not just an interesting project. "If you're not comfortable going to them with questions and all your weird ideas, then it's not really a collaborative space that will allow for you to grow."

Ferguson has about two years to go to complete her PhD in cell biology. "Research has taken hold of me," she says, and she looks forward to the day when she can carry on with post-doctoral studies. Alberta-born and bred, she'd love to expand her horizons and work somewhere in Europe, where she could someday have her own lab and, on weekends, hop a train to another city for fun and adventure.