IPN Student Profile: Debra Dawson

I have always been drawn to understanding the world that I experience.  For me, what that translates to is a desire to understand the external world, or the physical world, as well as the internal world, or that which is formulated in the brain.

As I’m sure many of my generation can relate to, after high school I had no idea what career I wanted to pursue.  I had experience as a teacher through tutoring in high school and teaching gymnastics at both recreational and competitive levels, but while I loved sharing my knowledge, I could tell that I didn’t want to exclusively pursue teaching full time.  While still unsure of my ultimate career path, I thought that perhaps an academic position at a university would allow me the opportunity to continue teaching, but also to diversify my activities with the inclusion of research into the world that I was experiencing.  So with this in mind, I knew university was the next step for me.  I was a passionate learner with a natural affinity for mathematics, so I chose first to pursue studies which would utilize my skills and allow me to discover more about the physical world through an Honours BSc in Physics-Mathematics at the University of Ottawa.  Upon completion of my BSc I knew I was not yet done learning and would pursue a graduate degree.  Feeling as though I had a basic understanding of the physical world around me, I thought that the next step would be to take a deeper look at the internal world, or the brain.

I was drawn to the IPN program at McGill due to the impressive history of neuroscience in Montreal, as well as the vastness of the research opportunities available through the many Principal Investigators associated with the program.  I was most interested in a more computational approach to neuroscience given my background and wanted to focus my efforts on understanding basic processes in the healthy brain, perhaps in a somewhat self-interested attempt to, once again, understand my own experience.  This combination of interests led me to work with Amir Shmuel doing computational analyses of fMRI data within the human visual cortex.  During my master’s I gained invaluable skills in research, a greater understanding of what to expect working in scientific research, and certainly a foundation of knowledge in vision neuroscience and neuroimaging.  Even with my newfound insights and experience, I was still unsure of what career I wanted for myself.  While I loved research and teaching, I still felt as though there was a missing component - something more personal and grounded in an immediate need.  Medicine seemed the perfect fit for me. In the role of Physician Scientist, I could practice clinical medicine - connecting with humans and the issues they face; pursue research - satisfying my curiosities as well as pushing the boundaries of clinic practice; and also teach graduate and medical students – sharing my knowledge as they go through their clinical or academic training.

For two years I worked part time as a Physics teacher at a Montreal CEGEP as well as a research assistant in Dr. Shmuel’s lab, continuing the work from my master’s degree.  These experiences helped concretize my plans for the future.  Following this I was lucky enough to be admitted to McGill’s MDCM & PhD program starting in the fall of 2015.  The program is built such that students complete the first 1.5yrs of undergraduate medical training, then, before transitioning to clinical training, students pursue and complete a PhD.  Upon completion of the PhD, students then join back into the second year of medical training until they finish their MDCM degree.

I am currently working with Amir Shmuel pursuing my PhD with the IPN.  Within Dr. Shmuel’s lab, we seek to elucidate mechanisms underlying imaging data, as well as neuronal mechanisms of communication, often focussing within the visual cortex.  Analyses stem from a variety of data including fMRI, optical imaging, neurophysiological recordings, and histological study.  My specific work looks at resting-state fMRI based functional connectivity on a fine scale.  Firstly, I have sought to evaluate methods in the task of approximating anatomical connectivity via resting-state functional connectivity.  Next, I have used some of the more promising methods in order to explore the fine-scaled functional connectivity observed in the visual cortex of healthy humans, a relatively well understood network in the brain.  Finally, I will use the more promising methods to look at the fine scaled functional connectivity in local brain networks, comparing healthy controls to individuals in a pathological state such as mild-cognitive impairment, where the local connectivity has yet to be explored in depth.  It is clear that fMRI holds great potential for use in the clinical setting but as of yet we still have much to learn regarding the extent of interpretation of the measured signal, as well as how pathological states present themselves.  My hope is that in working to optimize computational methods and exploring connectivity within the brain in both the healthy and pathological states that we will be better equipped to diagnose patients early, and better able to understand the mechanisms underlying brain pathologies in order to develop new treatments.

While I am not yet sure of which clinical field I will pursue, I know that the skills I have acquired and continue to gain through my graduate work in the IPN have prepared me to be an effective researcher.  I look forward to utilizing my skills while I look into questions inspired by clinical issues faced by my patients.  As it stands, while I still have much to learn about the world, I have at least found an exciting career path which inspires me everyday to continue learning and to use my knowledge to help those around me either to heal or to learn themselves.