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Communications - News at Medicine - August 2017 - ​Opportunity of a lifetime: Student chases her genetic dreams


​Opportunity of a lifetime: Student chases her genetic dreams
August 29, 2017
“There are not many times in your life that you can point to and say that that’s when everything changed for me, but May 3 was one of those days. It was the most intense feeling of relief I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Sutherland. “I can hardly express how fortunate I feel to have been given this opportunity of a lifetime.”
 

Alison Sutherland remembers every detail of the day she got the news.

“I got the email on the afternoon of May 3. When big things like this happen, you don’t forget when it happened. I saw the beginning of the email with the subject line Rothermere Fellowship 2017 that read ‘Dear Alison, I am delighted to…’ People are rarely delighted to tell you didn’t receive the award,” Ms. Sutherland recalled. “After I saw that my application had been successful, I immediately collapsed out of my chair and on to the floor. After being on the floor for what was hopefully only a few seconds of panting in disbelief, I got myself together enough to grab my phone and go to the stairwell and phone my mom.”

 

“When she realized it was ‘the big one,’ she started to cry. She asked me ‘So, what does this mean?’ and I replied that it meant that I would be able to continue my education in ways I had only ever dreamed of.”

 
What Ms. Sutherland dreams about is genetics. When she heads to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom later this year to do her PhD, her research could mean more accurate predictions of disease development and drug response for Indigenous Canadians.
 

Full circle

Ms. Sutherland completed a bachelor of science (hons) at the University of Guelph in 2012. The day after, she embarked on a two-year solo backpacking trip across 32 countries, completing a full lap of the globe.
 
In 2015, Ms. Sutherland began her career in research at the Institute of Child Health, University College London as a laboratory assistant. She performed vaccine evaluations on samples from children in developing nations in association with the World Health Organization. That same year, she started her masters in science under the supervision of Dr. Proton Rahman and Dr. Darren O’Reilly at the Faculty of Medicine. Since then, she’s worked on investigating genetic markers for treatment response in patients with psoriatic arthritis, a genetic disorder common in Newfoundland and Labrador’s population.
 
Outside of her masters work, Ms. Sutherland volunteers as a mentor with Let's Talk Science; she’s led groups of Girl Guides; she teaches an art class to a group of Syrian girls “to ensure they are given the same opportunities for extra-curricular activities as their brothers;” and within the genetics community at Memorial, she leads a project entitled Tea with Jane, a series of video recordings with Dr. Jane Green – one of the founding members of genetics research in Newfoundland.
 

Well rounded

“When I ‘grow up’ I would like to be a professor of genetics. This award allows me to shift within the discipline from medical to evolutionary genetics which will help me to gain a better-rounded knowledge base in genetics. Often professors are experts in only one area of their field. I plan to study various aspects of genetics to enable me to adequately teach the subject as a whole,” Ms. Sutherland explained.
 
She hopes to be part of a project called The Genetic and Immunological Impact of European Contact on Indigenous North Americans, with the goal of better genomic medicine for Indigenous Canadians.
 

“There are not many times in your life that you can point to and say that that’s when everything changed for me, but May 3 was one of those days. It was the most intense feeling of relief I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Sutherland. “I can hardly express how fortunate I feel to have been given this opportunity of a lifetime.”

 
Established by Memorial University’s first chancellor, Lord Rothermere, the fellowship is awarded annually by the Rothermere Fellowships Trust to a candidate who will be pursuing their studies for a higher degree at a university of their choice in the United Kingdom and who is committed to Newfoundland and Labrador. The fellowship is currently valued at about £16,500 per year, plus tuition fees, and return airfare to Newfoundland.

(Photos: Jennifer Armstrong, HSIMS)
 
 

 
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