When chemistry computes

PhD grad Cassandra Churchill finds her stride in anticancer drug research.

Kristy Condon - 17 November 2015

At first glance, PhD grad Cassandra Churchill seems destined to be a researcher. She obtained her doctorate in just 4 years and submitted her first paper-on which she was the sole author-within the first year of her graduate studies at the University of Alberta. However, she wasn't always interested in a life of research.

"I originally started out my university career with the intention of becoming a high school chemistry teacher," Churchill says. In fact, she didn't even consider getting involved in research until a professor approached her near the end of her second year of undergraduate studies at the University of Lethbridge. "In my third year, I signed up to do a research course and was hooked."

"I was drawn to the U of A specifically due to its reputation as a prestigious university in Canada."

This early opportunity to engage in research allowed Churchill to take on research projects for classes in addition to completing an honors thesis. "[It] provided me with invaluable experience that has been of great benefit to me in my graduate studies."

After earning her BSc followed by a master's degree in 2011, she came to the U of A to pursue a doctorate with the guidance from two supervisors-Mariusz Klobukowski (chemistry) and Jack Tuszynski (physics and oncology). "I was drawn to the U of A specifically due to its reputation as a prestigious university in Canada," she says. "The Department of Chemistry at U of A is also well known for its excellence."

The opportunity to study with two supervisors appealed to her interest in multidisciplinary research. "I have always been drawn to interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects, and the U of A is well situated in terms of opportunities for collaboration, such as NINT and the Cross Cancer Institute."

The chemo quandary

As a computational chemist, Churchill explores the reasons behind the effectiveness of cancer drugs. "A lot of times, drugs are successful in the clinic, but it isn't necessarily known why or how," she explains. Since it's unclear exactly why these drugs are working in the first place, it is very difficult to design new agents based on those already in use. "The central question that drove most of my PhD research was 'How do these drugs work?'"

Using computers to study the structures and properties of molecules in existing cancer chemotherapies, Churchill's research has practical applications in the development of new drugs. These developments could mean improved efficiency, fewer side effects, and the ability to overcome drug resistances.

"One of the most interesting findings from my work was identifying how clinically-approved agents like paclitaxel bind to one region on the tubulin protein, but result in structural changes all over the protein. I hope that this finding will be useful to scientists trying to design new drugs that have similar, or ideally enhanced, effects on the tubulin protein."

Finding the right chemistry

Having found her own calling through happenstance, Churchill encourages other students to seize new opportunities when they present themselves. "Get your foot in the door as soon as you can. If it's the wrong fit for you, then you'll know sooner rather than later. But if it's the right fit, you'll start gaining experience early, which has provided me with an amazing advantage," she says.

As a representative for women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, Churchill thinks the future is bright for girls interested in science. "I have worked with so many remarkable women scientists in my undergraduate and graduate studies, and with organizations such as WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology), I can't help but be optimistic about the future of women in STEM," she says. "Ultimately, we need more strong women in STEM who are relatable role models for younger women and for people in senior positions to actively encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM. I hope that I have and will continue to contribute to this."

During her studies, Churchill was supported by several scholarships including the Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize, the President's Doctoral Prize of Distinction, and the IODE (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire) War Memorial Scholarship. "It was a great honor to have been selected by these different agencies and organizations for these prestigious awards, and for them to recognize potential in both my work and me," she says.

She was also very active in the science student community during her studies through her role as Co-president of the Chemistry Graduate Student Society as well as supporting science outreach activities by volunteering with Let's Talk Science and WISEST summer research programs for young women in high school.

Churchill is now working on a postdoctoral fellowship with the Li Ka Shing Institute with her graduate supervisor Jack Tuszynski and physics professor Michael Woodside to study proteins associated with Parkinson's disease.