Meet the New GCI Trainees

The training of the next generation of cancer fighters is essential if we are going to beat the disease. Check out our interviews below as some of our new trainees share their passion for science and #WhyCancerResearch story!

Maria GuerraMaria Guerra

Research Area: Mammalian energy metabolism and its influence on physiology

Department: Biochemistry

Supervisor: Lawrence Kazak

 

Email: maria.guerra2 [at] mail.mcgill.ca

Tell us a bit about yourself: Your hometown, your studies, What attracted you to Montreal?

I’m from Cajamarca, a city in Peru, located in the Andes Mountains. When I was nine, I moved to Canada and settled in Calgary, Alberta. After finishing high school, I relocated to Montreal, where I completed a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry at McGill University. During my undergrad, I was attracted to Montreal due to its vibrant and lively nature. Out of all the cities I have lived in Montreal is by far my favourite.

Describe your research in a few lines.

My research mainly involves bioinformatics. Essentially, I use computer programming to answer biological questions. Currently, I’m working on immunohistochemistry image analysis with imagej. In the future, I will be involved in scRNA-seq analysis and the development of a program for calorimetry analysis.

Why did you choose the GCI?

I did my undergrad at McGill, so I was exposed to the research carried out by the GCI. Many of the researchers at the GCI were my professors, and I learned about their research in class. Based on my undergrad experience with the GCI, I decided that I wanted to be part of the GCI and its wonderful community of researchers.

What excites you most about doing research?

Well, I really like coding, so I am excited to write computer programs and develop novel software as part of my research. Apart from that, I am excited to learn wet-lab techniques and get first-hand experience working in a lab.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of the lab?

I love watching movies, taking photos, and exploring Montreal.

 

Benjamin VonniessenBenjamin Vonniessen

Research Area: Breast Cancer Metastasis

Department: Biochemistry

Supervisor: Peter Siegel

 

Email: benjamin.vonniessen [at] mail.mcgill.ca

 

Tell us a bit about yourself: Your hometown, your studies, What attracted you to Montreal?

I grew up in the West Island of Montreal and remained here for both my undergraduate degree in honours immunology at McGill, and now for my master’s in biochemistry.

Describe your research in a few lines.

The research focus of Dr. Siegel’s lab encapsulates the molecular and cellular underpinnings of metastasis, a process that accounts for 70-90% of all cancer-associated deaths. My research focuses on Afadin, a protein previously implicated in the metastasis of breast cancer tumors to the lung and liver by Dr. Siegel’s research group. We are investigating how this multidomain scaffolding protein links cell signaling to metastasis by deleting each domain within the protein sequentially to better understand its network of binding partners. This is of interest as clinical correlative evidence has shown that increased Afadin expression in metastatic breast tumors is associated with poor overall and relapse-free survival.

Why did you choose the GCI?

I discovered the GCI through its 2022 recruitment event. Talking to students and principal investigators at the event convinced me that the GCI fosters a very close-knit, collaborative environment that emphasizes creativity through sharing of ideas amongst peers. Combined with the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to treating such a pervasive and debilitating disease as cancer, I felt that this was the ideal place to explore a career in research.

At the virtual event, I was fortunate enough to interview with Dr. Peter Siegel. After meeting his talented and passionate research group, I was convinced that his lab would afford me the greatest learning opportunity to develop critical skills needed to be an effective scientist and communicator.

What excites you most about doing research?

My favorite part of research is the opportunity to utilize the reasoning skills and knowledge that I gathered during my undergraduate degree. Given the remote delivery format for most of my bachelors, I felt disconnected from the material I was learning and eagerly sought opportunities to apply it. Research at the GCI is a privilege because I am not only surrounded by incredibly talented scientists who continuously teach me something new every day, but I am also given the opportunity to take ownership of and drive my own research question. Testing hypotheses, interpreting results, and managing the unexpected that occurs along the way can be challenging but also immensely rewarding.

In my short time in Dr. Siegel’s lab, I have already seen how discoveries in this lab have changed the way clinical decisions are made regarding treatments for patients with metastatic tumors.

This has cemented my passion for research, and I firmly believe that pursuing fundamental biological questions at the lab bench will lead to novel treatment modalities that will improve the lives of patients with cancer.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of the lab?

I enjoy exploring the incredible city of Montreal and spending time outdoors, whether biking, cross country skiing, or trekking up Mount Royal. I also enjoy taking time to decompress through reading and spending time with my family and friends.

 

Sarah-Slim DiwanSarah-Slim Diwan

Research Area: MicroRNA Biogenesis

Department: Biochemistry

Supervisor: Thomas Duchaine

 

Email: sarah.diwan [at] mail.mcgill.ca

 

Tell us a bit about yourself: Your hometown, your studies, What attracted you to Montreal?

I am from Montreal and I recently completed my bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular medicine at the Université de Montréal. During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to do several internships which allowed me to develop my interest in RNA research.

Describe your research in a few lines.

Our research focuses on understanding the mechanism and characterizing molecules involved in RNA-mediated interference pathways, including microRNA- mediated silencing. I am interested in the biogenesis of the let-7 microRNA family, which targets several oncogenes in the cell. Its abnormal regulation is associated with various type of cancers. More precisely, I would like to understand the early steps of biogenesis of polycistrons of the let-7 microRNA family and how this process regulates let-7 microRNAs expression level in normal cells versus malignant cells.

Why did you choose the GCI?

In my last year of undergraduate studies, I looked into various biochemistry graduate programs across Canada and was attracted by the GCI collaborative environment. My interest for this institute grew further during the GCI’s Graduate Recruitment event where I met many professors and graduate students. During this event, I got to meet Dr. Thomas Duchaine whose research is well aligned with my background.

What excites you most about doing research?

What I love the most about research is the intellectual challenge of designing and troubleshooting experiments. It is also very rewarding when I obtain interesting results after much effort and hard work. I am very happy that my research contributes to the pool of knowledge on cancer and will help millions of people affected by this disease.

What is your favorite thing to do outside of the lab?

I love cooking, especially sweets such as cookies, cakes, and fruit tarts. I also enjoy several types of nautical activities like swimming, scuba diving, kayaking, or even just walking along the St. Lawrence River. When the health situation allows it, one of my favorite activities is to solve escape rooms with my friends. We have tried many in person rooms and even board games!

 

The GCI wishes to welcome all of its new Trainees and encourages them to contact their Student Society gcss.gcrc [at] mcgill.ca ((The Goodman Cancer Student Society)) and/or their Student Affairs Officer daniel.caron2 [at] mcgill.ca (Daniel Caron)

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