IPN Student Profile: Kelly Smart

Since beginning university, I have been interested in health research as a way to nudge my interest in science – solving problems, figuring out how things work – towards meaningful, socially positive work. To this end, I completed my undergraduate degree in pharmacology at the University of Toronto. In a research internship at Sunnybrook Hospital during that time, I had my first opportunity to work with patient populations on a study of people with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease and their family members. I came to appreciate what it means for a disease to affect perceptions, motor systems, and emotions, and how those changes can affect a person’s personality and relationships profoundly. I was interested in learning more about the biochemical mediators of those changes and exploring how experiences so fundamental to one’s sense of self can be modified by different kinds of drugs, medications, and other treatments.

I pursued this further at U of T for my master’s degree, where I worked in a behavioural neuropsychology lab at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health studying the role of dopamine receptors in implicit and explicit responses to drugs and gambling. After this I decided to focus on neuroscience and became interested in using human neuroimaging as a way to measure fundamental brain processes in (nearly) real time. I had heard a lot about the history of neuroscience research in Montreal and at the MNI in particular (one undergrad professor was especially fond of Ron Melzack’s work on pain in the ‘50s and ‘60s). So, although I enjoyed Toronto and worked in several excellent labs there, I decided to look for a change. I found Dr. Benkelfat’s lab in the McGill Department of Psychiatry and was drawn in by the interesting and ambitious neuroimaging studies they were doing, which involve things like drug challenges, amino acid depletion, and behavioural interventions in combination with PET and MRI brain scans. These methods allow us to make inferences about basic neurochemical mechanisms in living people.

As I’d hoped, this lab environment has given me an excellent opportunity to develop my skills and learn new things, and most importantly to become more independent as a researcher. With Dr. Benkelfat’s shrewd guidance, I drew on my own interests and experience as well as those of the many expert scientists I have the chance to work with in order to develop my thesis project. I now split my research time between the psychiatry department and Salah El Mestikawy’s lab at the Douglas Institute, working on studies of stimulant drug effects on the brain in parallel in humans and animal models. Specifically, I study the role of glutamate signaling in modulating drug response (and vice versa), as a way to understand early brain changes associated with addiction. My main project is centred around PET imaging, which uses radioactive labels to determine the location and concentration of certain biochemical markers in the brain – in this case, glutamate receptors. Using drug challenges in healthy people and safe, validated translational paradigms, we can track changes in these markers prospectively with early and limited drug use, avoiding the confounds of disease populations (such as extensive drug use and toxicity, withdrawal and abstinence effects). This is complemented by animal studies that provide a level of detail we can’t yet achieve in humans, to produce reliable, well-founded information about biological processes that are directly relevant to people at risk of developing drug dependence and those trying to treat them.

Outside the lab I’m happy to be involved in a number of IPN departmental and student initiatives. In particular I’ve been able to pursue an interest in science outreach. Growing up in isolated paper mill towns in northern Saskatchewan and Ontario, despite having basically every advantage besides geography, I came to appreciate how unevenly resources and opportunities are distributed and how difficult it is to aspire to things that you don’t see in your own environment. This is why I was eager to volunteer with BrainReach North. BRN is an ambitious initiative to extend the BrainReach education outreach program outside of the Montreal area by providing science activities, teaching resources, and active support to teachers and students in remote northern Quebec, particularly in Indigenous communities. I have now served as the program’s president for two years, during which time we have reached hundreds of students in communities across Quebec, and the program continues to expand. I am proud to contribute to this effort to narrow the gap in educational opportunity, however slightly. Rather than a side interest, I consider this work to be a central part of my scientific training, a way to create meaningful connections with the broader community I live in and contribute to building the diverse and inclusive scientific community I would like to work in.

Graduate school is challenging in ways I did not anticipate when I was a fourth-year pharmacology student sure that rote memorization of two-hundred-some drug mechanisms would be the hardest part of my academic life. It has required perseverance in the face of regular set-backs, with intermittent thrilling successes that are totally inscrutable to my non-scientist family and friends. At the same time, it’s been hugely satisfying to be able to pursue my own ideas and questions and to produce new knowledge that others can benefit from and build on. The IPN is a supportive and encouraging environment, and my fellow students are uniformly interesting, hard-working people. I look forward to building on what I’ve learned and experienced at McGill in my future scientific career.