Fascination with genetics fuels doctoral student throughout her academic career

Sophie Keegan's interests led her to the field of cell biology -- and she's been captivated ever since.

Adrianna MacPherson - 19 June 2020

Doctoral student Sophie Keegan always had an interest in science. However, she wasn't entirely sure what path she wanted to take until she arrived at the University of Alberta. Her fascination with genetics in particular drew her to the Department of Cell Biology. "I was really interested in genetics in the beginning, but I wanted to study genetics in the context of actual humans," says Keegan. "Mostly I just thought it was fascinating looking at things at such a basic level and how they actually lead to issues like disease."

Keegan began working with Sarah Hughes, a member of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA), during her time as an undergraduate, and continued on in the Hughes lab throughout her graduate studies. Hughes, who has appointments in the departments of Cell Biology and Medical Genetics, bridged the gap between many of Keegan's interests. "The genetics component brought a little bit more of a medical part to the project rather than just looking at cells in isolation," says Keegan. Keegan does much of her research with fruit flies, and focuses in particular on a tumor suppressor in the nervous system. "I'm just trying to understand at a very basic level what its role during the development of the nervous system is," says Keegan.

Family matters

Keegan's path to academia was deeply impacted by her father, who worked as an engineer. When she was a teenager he returned to school to obtain his PhD, working full time while simultaneously pursuing his doctorate. His journey had a powerful impact on Keegan's perspective of academia. "It exposed me to what it's like to go to grad school and do research and write a thesis, and I liked what I saw he was doing," she says.

Outside the lab

When she's not busy imaging fruit fly brains and counting the tiny creatures, Keegan is passionate about staying active. She picked up a ringette stick at the age of six and hasn't put it down since. Keegan plays in a competitive league in the city and is assistant coach for an under-19 team.

"I've made so many friends playing it, and I think it's really good to have a bit of balance," says Keegan. "It's easy to get wrapped up in research and school and I personally like having something active to do after school."

Beyond the ringette court, many of Keegan's favourite haunts are in the scenic Old Strathcona and Garneau neighbourhoods around campus. She loves the warm, cozy atmosphere and beverage selection at the Sugarbowl and has a penchant for La Boule Patisserie & Bakery. "I probably go to La Boule too often," she says with a laugh. She frequently stops by the spot for a croissant and a dose of relaxation away from the bustle of the lab.

Making an impact

Throughout her years of research, Keegan has always remained passionate about her chosen field. "I think a lot of people have this idea that cell biology is just looking at individual things in a cell, but it can be so much more than that," says Keegan. "Everything that goes on within your body at some point is related to cells."

While she's not yet certain what her career path will look like after she obtains her doctorate, she knows she will want to do something where she can connect with people and continue to express her passion for science. "I think I'd like to do something more in communication of science, for instance," she says. "What that actually means, I don't know yet."