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5 October 2015

DDA Winner: “Cutting Edge Research with a Conscience”


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Dr. Michelle Parker (nee Tonkin; PhD Biochemistry)


OTTAWA – A University of Victoria researcher with a drive to prevent human infectious diseases, especially those that affect the developing world, has won the 2015 Canada’s Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Engineering, Medical Science and Natural Science category.

As a young teenager, Dr. Michelle Parker (nee Tonkin; PhD Biochemistry) learned about the ravages of malaria through her church group that ran a mission to support Zambian communities. When she started her graduate program at UVic, she searched for a project with meaning for her and impact for the world.

“Growing up, I had a lot of exposure to the ongoing needs of people in developing countries,” she says. “I was so fortunate to find a fantastic supervisor focussed on understanding the details of how major pathogens, including the malaria parasite, are able to invade human cells and cause disease. Working on this research has been an incredible way for me to use my skills and knowledge to investigate the basis for new therapeutic strategies targeting a disease that disproportionately affects the people of developing countries.”

New methods to combat malaria parasites are particularly important because they continue to develop resistance to front-line drugs. Michelle uses high-energy radiation to image the three-dimensional structures of proteins. This has revealed important details of what appears to be an Achilles’ heel for the malarial parasite–the unique way it enters the human red blood cell.

“Michelle’s graduate work is already helping other researchers develop novel drug and vaccine strategies to fight or prevent malaria infections,” says Dr. Martin Boulanger, who was Michelle’s PhD supervisor.

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A major component of Michelle’s work was in collaboration with a group in France, and led to a paper in Science, one of the world's leading journals of original scientific research. The Science manuscript was her fourth publication from the Boulanger lab. Since then she’s published an additional 17 papers, with more than 10 focused on the infection mechanisms of the malaria parasite and its relatives.

Her combination of keen intellect and strong work ethic drew praise from the CAGS’ judges. But it goes beyond that. “What impressed me so deeply about Michelle, is how she combines a passion for helping people with deep scientific curiosity. It is cutting edge research with a conscience,” says Boris Worm, head of the Marine Conservation Biology Lab at Dalhousie University

Keys to success

“Scientific research often feels like a roller coaster, so having a reliable supervisor and a project in which you are personally invested is key to a successful graduate program,” says Michelle. She also points to inspiration she got from joining 600 young researchers last year in a series of lectures and discussions with 37 Nobel laureates at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting on Physiology or Medicine in Germany. The event was intended to promote inter-generational and international dialogue.

Her favourite lecture was from 89 year old geneticist Oliver Smithies. “He used his life experiences to discuss how the ordinary and extraordinary pieces of our lives intertwine with our scientific education and result in the evolution of ideas,” she says. Inspiration also came from physicist Brian Schmidt who said “theory and observation combine to show you what is, so don’t have preconceptions about how crazy the universe can be – science and the universe will always surprise you”. Michelle has found this to be true in her scientific career thus far and is excited to unravel even more surprises as she seeks to understand the complexities of important human pathogens.

The CAGS/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Awards have been recognizing outstanding Canadian doctoral dissertations for more than 20 years. It seeks out work that makes significant, original contributions to both the academic community and to Canadian society. There are two awards: one for engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one for fine arts, humanities and social sciences. They include a monetary prize, a Citation Certificate, and an awards ceremony at the CAGS Annual Conference in Calgary. The award for Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences will be announced in October.