Rheanna Sand's New York State of mind

Life-changing events lead alumna away from the lab.

Julie Naylor - 26 October 2016

It was a typical February day in New York City when Rheanna Sand ('02 BSc, '12 PhD), newly minted PhD in hand, began her work as a post-doctoral student alongside Dr. Hugh Hemmings, a renowned anesthesiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College and current chief anesthesiologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "I was plugged into a really prominent group of people," comments Sand. "The lab was trying to better understand how general anesthesia functions in the body, specifically what the gases used are doing on a cellular, protein level."

For nearly three years, Sand focused her attention on one particular protein, related to her U of A graduate work in Warren Gallin's lab (biological sciences), where she worked on voltage-gated potassium channels. For the Cornell work, Sand jumped over to sodium channels, more related to anesthesiology. "When you block the sodium channels, you block pain and sensation," explains Sand. "Researchers know gases are interfering with proteins in some way, but they still don't understand how."

Sand would likely have stayed at Cornell for a few more years had it not been for a life-changing event. She met her (now) spouse, who at the time was a medical student with a pending residency at UMass in Boston.

"I love all of science, and I'm not sure I want to be in just one area."

"I had about a year to finish up what I could at Cornell and started looking for a position in Boston. I was fortunate to find a posting with Dr. Paul Rosenberg, an associate professor of neurology at Harvard and a researcher at Boston Children's Hospital."

The project took Sand in a new direction-away from the "cells-in-a-dish" skills aligned with her PhD and post-doc-to something she refers to as "messy" biology.

"The project I'm involved in now looks at how to regrow nerves after injury, particularly brain and spinal cord nerves," explains Sand. "Rosenberg's lab made a discovery a few years ago that if you can soak up all the metal ions around the injured area right after injury, you can regrow the nerves, more so than any other treatments out there."

For her part, Sand soaked up her new bench-work atmosphere, learning new skills such as surgical techniques and neuroscience principles.

But earlier this year, Sand's life was touched by tragedy with the sudden death of her dad. "It's been a challenging year," she reveals. "We were really close, and it was completely unexpected, so that really threw me."

Sand spent the last several months questioning her future at the bench, and concedes she is likely to leave the lab in the next year. After close to 10 years working in the lab, she finds herself at a crossroads wondering what's next.

"I've always had my eye on other pursuits," says Sand. "I've always been interested in sharing science. Science in Seconds was a big part of my life. I love all of science, and I'm not sure I want to be in just one area."

Science in Seconds is the brainchild she and fellow science graduates Torah Kachur ('01 BSc, '08 PhD) and Brittany Trogen ('08 BSc) created in 2009 in an effort to bring topical science issues to the public in a short, condensed video format.

As Sand puts it, her future could go one of two ways. "I went to an adult space camp last year in Alabama. It was the coolest thing I've ever done, and it really opened my eyes to how much space has always been of interest. I made a mental note that if they ever recruit again, I would apply. "

So, when the Canadian Space Agency launched its astronaut recruitment campaign this past June, Sand added her name to the pool.

"I made it through the first cut. I still have hope. These people have been training their entire lives, so if I make it through even the next cut, I'll be excited," she says with a laugh. "So, I guess there is a one-in-3700 chance I'll be an astronaut this time next year."

But the more likely option, she admits, is pursuing an interest in patent law.

Through her Harvard connection, Sand has been engaged in the professional development workshops offered by the school. It is important to her to use her exceptional experience and stay in the sciences, and patent law would give her the opportunity to use her knowledge, become a technical specialist, and bring other scientific ideas to fruition.

What she knows played a role in her next steps? An awareness of "what is really important to me in this short life we have."

And while she is excited to start a new chapter in her career and life, she adds that her decision to leave the bench has not been easy.

"The main reason comes from some stats I learned while sitting on the board for WISEST [Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology]: that women make up less than 25 per cent of academic positions even though they are over 50 per cent of the student body during undergrad and grad school," she notes. "I have been well aware of the drop-off, aware of the wave of women who leave academic science, and I never wanted to contribute to that statistic. The truth is, though, science does remain somewhat of a boys' club at the higher levels, and while the sexism isn't blatant, I can't help but wonder whether it has played a role in my decision to leave."

What she knows played a role in her next steps? An awareness of "what is really important to me in this short life we have."

And for Sand, a bike ride through Prospect Park or walking with her wife through the Park Slope neighbourhood in Brooklyn can put it all in focus.

In her own words

Rheanna talks residential schools, truth and reconciliation, and the support from her community

Truth and Reconciliation

I read that they will now be teaching about residential schools in the curriculum. That in itself is a huge benefit, because all kids now will have an understanding of what happened.They will have an awareness of it and understand where some of the genera- tional problems are coming from. Maybe students will have more compassion towards their fellow aboriginal students, and the aboriginal students hopefully won't feel the shame and stigma that even my generation felt as being native kids. Being proud of your culture would make a huge difference in what the kids can accomplish.

Residential schools

My mom and her older brothers were put into a residential school (the Lacombe Home) in the late '50s. After five years there, my mom and brothers were split into foster homes. It wasn't until about 10 years later that they were reunited as a family. The legacy of residential schools was present in my family in a direct way, but we overcame a lot of that trauma and my extended family remains very close to this day.

Encouraging youth into the sciences

I always had these fundamental questions like what are we, and how do things work? That was always inside for me and was fostered really well by my teachers in high school. I think it is important to have role models-seeing aboriginal people in lab coats and as engineers-and showing the kids that they can do that. I know in my family, it was a lot of community development and Métis politics-with my grandma (Thelma Chalifoux, the first Métis woman to be appointed to the Senate of Canada), I saw she was working to make a change in the community and helping people directly. For me, I wanted to know "what is this world we are living in."