Graduate student given an unforgettable research opportunity

Tamara Vineberg - 30 June 2021

Carmen Tessier stands on a beach in Ireland where she is a guest at a Cork research lab.
Carmen Tessier is finishing her graduate degree in a city that dates back to 1185 and where the city centre is an island surrounded by two rivers. The Department of Pediatrics student is experiencing a once in a lifetime research visit in Cork, Ireland.

In April, Tessier arrived at the APC Microbiome lab in Ireland thanks to a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant and with help from her supervisor, Anita Kozyrskyj. She will be defending her thesis from Cork and returning to Edmonton in August.

Her love of science focused on biology during high school. It fascinated her how bacteria have evolved with the human body. “What excites me is these unicellular tiny organisms can adapt these advanced mechanisms to specific parts of our body. Depending on the bacteria, this co-evolution of humans and bacteria can either protect us from illness or act as a causative agent in the development of a disease,'' she says.

Her passion for microbiome research started during her undergraduate degree. Tessier decided she wanted to study the science of the brain so she enrolled in a bachelor of science in psychology at the University of Alberta. One of her courses was in microbiology where she learned about the gut microbiome and made a connection to child health when she took a developmental psychology course. “In my fourth year, I gave a presentation on the effects of stress on child development. Recurrent themes throughout my undergrad of learning the impacts of stress, mental health, and child development led me on this path,” says Tessier.

CIHR awarded Tessier the 2020/2021 Sir Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship, which allowed her to apply for the CIHR-funded Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplements travel award to fund her time in Cork. Only students with an active CIHR award can apply for this grant. In her quest for a host supervisor, Kozyrskyj introduced her to networking and she connected with John Cryan at the APC Microbiome lab. Cryan agreed to be her host supervisor for the research abroad opportunity.

The APC Microbiome lab and its researchers are one of the top one per cent worldwide in the field. The lab’s reputation and the networking opportunities it provided drew Tessier to Ireland. “It’s helped me explore further mechanistic processes relating to my thesis project. My research uses CHILD cohort data to explore the impact of maternal distress through pregnancy and how that affects the infant’s microbiome and how the influence of the early infant’s microbiome may affect the developing brain through childhood,” she explains.

She met researchers from around the world at the lab and gained different perspectives about her work. The experience has refueled her passion for research. It’s an area where she has found her purpose. “The exciting part is that you feel as though you’re making a difference and that your research has an impact. In my study, we’re looking at maternal mental health and child development so it’s meaningful to me to support women and children’s health,” says Tessier. “Women’s health is under-researched so it strikes me to continue that path.”

Once Tessier has defended her thesis, she is looking for work where she can apply her skills. Her long range goal is to study medicine with either a focus on pediatrics, child psychiatry, or maternal mental health. Her time in Ireland will have a lasting effect.

“I’ve learned the importance of networking and collaboration and I am grateful to have been awarded the experience to gain skills in both clinical and biomedical research.”