Passion for science leads Rhalena Thomas to The Neuro to find a cure for Parkinson's disease

Dr. Rhalena Thomas is an HBHL Postdoctoral Fellow who uses computational biology to study genes implicated in Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Rhalena Thomas works in the Early Drug Discovery Unit (EDDU) led by Drs. Edward Fon and Thomas Durcan at the The Neuro.

Rhalena’s passion for science started when she was a child, growing up in London, Ontario. “I always wanted to be a scientist – I never wanted to be anything else.” Since she was a kid, Rhalena was always asking questions, always wanted to know how things worked. When her parents didn’t have the answers, they told her it was the job of scientists to figure them out. “And I wanted answers!”

On her path from eager child to accomplished postdoctoral researcher, Rhalena explored various fields of science. During her undergraduate studies in Molecular Biology & Genetics at the University of Guelph, she worked in a microbiology lab on an oral vaccine for cows, spending time on the genetic farm and in their greenhouse, before switching to yeast genetics for her final year project. During her PhD at McGill, she studied a protein (LGI1) that when mutated causes epilepsy in humans, and discovered that it regulates synapse formation.

She then did a short postdoc in a systems neuroscience lab, doing in vivo electrical physiology and behavioural recordings from fish – this was where she started doing more computational work, which she enjoyed and is now her main interest. During her PhD, she had become interested in improving image analysis, in using and developing automated techniques – this computational biology approach, integrating machine learning and automated data analysis, is what she’s working on now at The Neuro, applying it to Parkinson’s disease. Although she was already familiar with many of the techniques and practical background for her current project, Parkinson’s was a new subject area for her – she found the EDDU group really helpful in this respect, as a very knowledgeable and collaborative team. “I love working in this group” – with the way they work together, “it’s okay not to be an expert in everything”.

Rhalena’s postdoc project

Her project focuses on 2 genes that are of interest as models for studying early initiation of Parkinson’s disease. She is characterizing brain organoids (mini cell culture models of the human midbrain) grown at the Early Drug Discovery Unit from Parkin and PINK1 knockout cells (human induced pluripotent stem cells). This will involve various techniques, most notably histology and single cell sequencing – these data will be analyzed with automated techniques that Rhalena and her students are working on.
Rhalena hopes this work will lead to having her own lab, where her team works on higher level data analysis. Her goal is to fill 2 gaps she sees in how science is currently done: a gap in communication and collaboration between data scientists and biologists, which she’d like to fill as an initiator, mediator, translator between fields, and a gap in datasets for cell biology – while there’s a lot of clinical and genomics data available for researchers to work with, the same kind of data is not available at the cell level. She’s already working to contribute to this in her postdoc, with the single cell sequencing she’s working on, and this is where she hopes to work with her own group, working in collaboration with biology labs to create sharable datasets that can be built on by other labs.

What are you working on?

“I’m checking on a job that I submitted to Compute Canada.” This cluster provides computing resources and infrastructure to process large amounts of data. “It’s for processing bulk RNA sequencing data from my organoids,” to analyze gene expression in the models she’s working with. “It crashed the last 2 times I submitted it, but this one’s still running so that’s a good sign!”

Who inspires you?

Rhalena’s initial inspiration for going into science was her dad – although he worked as a carpenter himself, he loves science-y things! “He likes sci-fi-sounding stuff, nanotechnology, physics,” and he would teach her about different things when she was a kid, explaining how things worked. “When I was sick and didn’t want to eat, he explained how your immune system worked, how your cells need fuel to make things.” Her parents also bought her a chemistry kit, and books by David Suzuki, and “My dad always had a subscription to National Geographic, and would buy me the kids’ version.” From these books and activities, she remembers there being a wide range of things, from ‘make your own ink’ to learning about snakes and how lightning works.

Favourite thing to do to take a break from science?

Aside from spending time with her family, Rhalena likes gardening. She says she loves her garden, but laughs “it’s horrible – it’s all disorganized, half the plants are dead, and the tomato plant took over.”

Best music to listen to while doing science?

Rhalena listens to podcasts while doing imaging. Right now, she likes Making Sense with Sam Harris and The Portal with Eric Weinstein.

Originally published on the Healthy Brains for Healthy Lives (HBHL) Trainees Facebook page.



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The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) is a bilingual academic healthcare institution. We are a McGill research and teaching institute; delivering high-quality patient care, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. We are proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.



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