The World Is Their Oyster

These bright young grads and postgrads from across the globe surveyed the research training landscape—and landed on Sunnybrook Research Institute

Some human resources experts believe people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. On the flip side, people don’t just choose where, but for whom, they wish to work. In searching for the right opportunity, smart and focused trainees—who typically have the freedom to go anywhere they want to go—look for an advisor whose work fits with their interests, as well as a prospective supervisor’s personality and management style. The faculty and facilities at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) attract people at all stages of their careers from all over the world. Following are snapshots of four researchers-in-training who are furthering their know-how at SRI.

As a high-school student, Cristina Gallego Ortiz contemplated studying music at university. In the end, she decided to keep music as a hobby and majored in biomedical engineering at the Antioquia School of Engineering in Medellín, Colombia.

These days, she has little time for her flute, but has no regrets. “I am passionate about building systems that can learn from data,” says Gallego Ortiz, a second-year PhD student in the lab of Dr. Anne Martel, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences at SRI.

Near the end of 2007 she searched online for faculty working on computer-aided diagnosis, which led her to Martel, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto. For her master’s project, Gallego Ortiz developed an automated algorithm to segment the breast using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which can be used to assess breast density.

Her thesis is on the use of machine-learning approaches to improve characterization and early detection of breast cancer in high-risk women. Gallego Ortiz is looking for new imaging markers or descriptors that can be used to characterize lesions better.

Cristina Gallego Ortiz Dr. Marzena Cydzik

Top: Cristina Gallego Ortiz, a second-year PhD student from Colombia, is developing software to improve early detection of breast cancer in high-risk women.
Bottom: Dr. Marzena Cydzik, who emigrated from Poland to do her postdoctoral fellowship at Sunnybrook Research Institute, is developing therapeutics for ovarian cancer, allergies and rheumatoid arthritis.

Photos: Curtis Lantinga

She is developing software that extracts information from a breast MRI scan to “train” a computer to identify a tumour. The software selects features such as the shape and appearance of a lesion; an algorithm “learns” from these characteristics to diagnose a new case. “A malignant mass is likely to be irregular in shape,” says Gallego Ortiz.“So if a new case presents with the same features, the algorithm is able to highlight that characteristic, and it’s able to say within a certain probability whether the lesion is malignant.”

In 2013, Gallego Ortiz received a three-year fellowship worth more than $100,000 from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. “It’s good to have that guarantee of support, and I like that you become part of a network of researchers,” she says.

Outside the lab, she has complemented her science education with business activities. To wit, she and Martel filed a patent based on her master’s research.

She is considering a career in industry once she completes her PhD, and says she feels privileged to do translational research. “I’m inspired to improve the specificity of MRI screening through computer-aided diagnosis technology and aid radiologists in making more informed clinical decisions.”

Chemistry Calling

Growing up, Dr. Marzena Cydzik was a good student all around, but there was one subject for which she had an affinity. “I was always good at chemistry. It was really easy for me. Chemistry ‘spoke my language,’” she says.

She took her PhD at the University of Wrocław in Poland, one of the oldest universities in Europe. Once done, she didn’t linger. Cydzik is now a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Jean Gariépy, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences at SRI and a professor at U of T. In 2011, Gariépy, whose lab engineers biomolecules for imaging and targeted therapy of cancer and other diseases, hired Cydzik for her expertise in a specialized area of biochemistry.

As a freshly minted PhD, she sought a position that would enable her to apply her skills in a new field; the postdoc role in Gariépy’s lab fit the bill. “I was looking for a place where I could improve my skills by learning new techniques and having access to the newest technologies, a place where I could change my field of study and look at the science from a different perspective. That’s why I joined Dr. Gariépy’s lab. Now, after two years, I am slowly becoming a molecular biologist,” says Cydzik, smiling.

In developing novel therapeutics, the lab defines the influence of the therapeutics on cellular processes, including migration, proliferation and adhesion. The position has given Cydzik a crash course in cell biology. “I’d never done tissue culture. Now I’m working with cells. Everything I’m doing here is new. I am evolving every day, and I know I can learn so much more,” she says.

Cydzik is developing chemical compounds aimed at blocking the growth of tumour-nourishing blood vessels as a potential therapy for ovarian cancer. She is also helping develop therapeutics that weaken inflammatory responses to treat conditions like allergies and rheumatoid arthritis.

Cydzik gets much satisfaction from using her expertise to further the group’s research. Gariépy tasked her with prolonging the blood-circulating time of therapeutics designed by the lab. She met the challenge by using a chemical commonly found in personal care products and drugs, and developing a protocol that helps the team study interactions between its drug-like compounds and specific receptors or proteins.

She’s also become proficient with state-of-the-art techniques, including surface plasmon resonance, which enables the study of binding kinetics of molecules in real time—know-how sought by industry. Like Gallego Ortiz, she is contemplating a career in the private sector after her training, but is not ready to trade in her lab coat. “I really love working at the bench. I don’t see myself at a desk.”

Target Practice

Xiaoke Chi

Xiaoke Chi, a third-year PhD student from China, is studying the mechanisms of programmed cell death, a biological process that is compromised in diseases like cancer and stroke.

Photo: Curtis Lantinga

Access to cutting-edge equipment also prompted Xiaoke Chi to do his research training abroad. Born and raised in the province of Shanxi in mainland China, Chi studied biochemistry at Tsinghua University, in Beijing. Like his classmates, Chi wanted to do graduate studies outside China because he felt it would advance his knowledge in the field. In 2009 he immigrated to Canada to do his PhD with Dr. David Andrews, SRI’s director of Biological Sciences.

He came to the right place.

Andrews, who is also a professor at U of T, not only has the world’s first automated, high-content screening microscope that can measure protein-protein interactions in live cells, but he also helped build it. This instrument—of which there are only four in the world—is of interest to drug companies because it can identify new therapeutic targets for cancer, stroke and other diseases.

Chi wanted to work with Andrews because of his leading research in apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Apoptosis is crucial for health, because it gets rid of abnormal or unneeded cells, but is compromised in some diseases. In cancer, for example, a faulty mechanism allows rogue cells that should self-destruct to proliferate uncontrollably. Andrews’ lab is trying to manipulate apoptosis—not only to kill malignant cells, as in cancer, but also to halt the death of healthy brain cells, as in stroke and other brain disorders.

Chi’s thesis is on the role of Bim, a protein that is implicated in apoptosis. He is trying to purify this protein for study outside its biological environment, which will allow him to analyze its function in detail. Studying Bim in the cell is problematic because of the numerous proteins at work, says the third-year doctoral student. “If you see an effect, it’s hard to know if it’s due to the interaction of the protein you’re looking at.”

He says he admires his supervisor’s breadth of knowledge. “He knows a lot of stuff—not just about apoptosis. He knows about imaging, data analysis, computers, microscopes and lasers. He looks at all these fields and uses whatever he can find in one field to help the research. He’s like a [symphony] conductor. He has that view.”

Chi says the guidance he’s received from Andrews has shaped how he works. “He’s taught us to think smart and design experiments that give a lot of information. He trains us to think like a scientist.”

Making the Connection

Near the end of her clinical fellowship at Western University, in London, Ontario, Dr. Alexandra Kim attended a lecture on cognitive impairment and stroke. The lecture was given by Dr. Sandra Black, a cognitive neurologist, director of the Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI and a professor at U of T. The talk would help shape the direction of her career.

Dr. Alexandra

Dr. Alexandra “Sasha” Kim, who hails from Russia, did her postdoctoral training at Sunnybrook Research Institute. She is examining the link between abnormalities in retinal blood vessels and white matter changes in Alzheimer’s disease.

Photo: Doug Nicholson

“I was fascinated by her lecture. It was just so interesting,” says Kim, who began her postdoc with Black in July 2010. Although she had seen Black’s name in journals, this was the first time she had heard her speak. Kim felt compelled to reach out; she sent Black an email, inquiring about training opportunities.

“She was interested in meeting with me and knowing more about me. We met, had a very nice conversation, and I started my fellowship a year later,” she recalls.

Kim, a permanent Canadian resident whose ancestral roots in Russia go back generations, did her medical degree at Moscow State University of Medicine and Dentistry, and her PhD at the Research Centre of Neurology, which is affiliated with the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

She was interested in meeting with me and knowing more about me. We met, had a very nice conversation, and I started my fellowship a year later.

Her postdoc finished in June 2012. Her research looked at retinal blood vessels in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and white matter hyperintensities. The aim of the project, a collaboration with Sunnybrook’s department of ophthalmology and vision sciences, was to see if there was a link between vascular abnormalities and white matter changes, which show up as white spots and patches of bright signal on MRI brain scans.

Kim says clinical input from the hospital’s ophthalmologists in interpreting the retinal images was a big help. Moreover, the project enabled her to become familiar with neuroimaging techniques.

“Dr. Black’s lab is huge. There’s the neuroimaging part and the clinical psychometry part. I learned a lot from both teams. Neuroimaging analysis is very interesting. I learned how to do assessment of white matter changes using a rating scale, and vessel measurement using special software,” says Kim.

She is wrapping up the project, doing statistical analysis and writing a paper on the findings. She describes her former supervisor as a “great mentor and teacher.” In particular, she says she appreciated how Black tailored advice to her strengths and weaknesses. She notes the fellowship gave insight into the busy life of a clinician-scientist, a career she hopes to have in Canada. “Nobody understands how she handles all of this with only 24 hours in a day. I’m learning how to balance things.”

— Alisa Kim

Cristina Gallego
Dr. Marzena Cydzik
Xiaoke Chi
Dr. Alexandra Kim