Second year Trinity Western University biotechnology major Rebecca Robertson prepares solutions that will be used by researchers hunting cancer cures. Robertson has just completed two weeks working at Vancouver's Jack Bell Research Centre assisting and learning from physician and scientist Dr. Bill Salh. Dr. Salh is a gastroenterologist, a physician who manages patients with diseases that affect the digestive system. Dr. Salh's research laboratory has been operating for over ten years studying colitis - a chronic digestive disease resulting in inflammation of the tissue that lines the digestive system, an inflammation that may lead to colon cancer over time.
Salh, is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at UBC and was recently awarded a Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute "In it for Life" Clinician Scientist Award. A world class expert in his field Dr. Salh's research focuses on a specific protein called integrin linked kinase or ILK that seems to play a factor in this form of cancer.
The statistics on colon cancer are startling. According to the Canadian Cancer Society's 2008 statistics, colon cancer is the "2nd leading cause of cancer death in Canada." It was estimated that there were over 21,000 new cases discovered, and almost 9000 people died of the disease in 2008 alone. Some of the risk factors include a diet high in fat, an inactive lifestyle, obesity, a family history of colon cancer, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Working alongside Dr. Salh and his scientists, Robertson learned real life skills navigating in and around a working lab. In just two weeks, the 22-year-old gained valuable experience studying normal (histochemistry) and diseased (pathology) tissue, monitoring animal models of colon cancer and using new equipment such as the photo microscope at Vancouver General Hospital to capture pictures.
Dr. Salh recognizes the importance of these types of internships. Says Salh, "For Rebecca, who has expressed interest in studying medicine in the long term, I think this opportunity would be fascinating. She can see how a clinical problem can be addressed, mechanistically (in cultured cells and tissue) and physiologically in an animal model."
TWU Assistant Professor of Biology and Director of the Biotechnology program, Dr. Julia Mills, has been placing biotech students in internships in a variety of labs across the lower mainland since the program began, and this particular placement was special for Mills. She recently collaborated on a paper with Dr. Salh and other researchers studying the role ILK plays in the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in the colon.
Says Mills, "I really think that having students experience a placement in a setting that closely matches their career aspirations is invaluable no matter what their experience. If negative, this will enable them to change their course selection early on to better match their career goals. If positive, this will provide valuable life skills and the impetus to pursue their educational training with vigor. I am thrilled that Rebecca, a first year biotechnology student taking pre-med, is given the opportunity to do medical research - her first career choice."
While Robertson has more years of schooling before she completes her bachelor's degree, she is excited about a career in biotechnology. "It's such a diverse field and you can practice it at various levels such as at the post doctorate degree level, as a principle investigator or as a research assistant, so it's very flexible in terms of career opportunities," she says. "And most of it is cutting edge, so you're thinking and researching things that most people aren't even thinking about yet - that's very exciting."
Dr. Salh has this advice for those thinking about beginning a career in the sciences. "I think that if you are starting in a progressive undergraduate program, find a lab that you are interested in and do a project that is very focused, where you can see that there is going to be a finite ending to it. The last thing a student starting off in research wants to do is bite off more than they can chew. A positive experience really does help."
Robertson‘s enthusiasm for the biotech program at TWU is transparent. "I think the program really prepares you to come out of your four years ahead in your field - because of the practicums, small class sizes and the fact that the professors are some of the top in their field."
When asked what she thinks knowing that she worked in lab that is researching cancer she humbly says, "Pretty incredible."
Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 42 undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 16 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.
Last Updated: 2009-06-11