By: Jo-Anna Baxter
Whether or not one should consider a graduate degree can be daunting. Which programme and/or university is a good fit? Is this sort of degree the right move given one’s goals and career aspirations? Will you really get to work on something that interests you? We caught up with some incoming students and recently convocated DNS graduates (now alumni) to capture their expectations for what is to come and reflections on the years gone by, respectively. We hope these interviews might be insightful for those prospective students pondering their options and whether a degree at the DNS might be a good fit!
Incoming MSc students: Cino Lin and Katie Pullella
Cino Lin and Katie Pullella began the Department of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) MSc stream this past September, having both finished their Honours BSc degrees at the University of Toronto in 2018. Cino received a double major in Animal Physiology and Health and Disease, and has since joined the Bandsma lab at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). Her thesis is titled, ‘Potential of Nicotinamide Supplementation to Rescue the Intestinal Dysfunction Observed in Malnutrition’. With a double major in Health and Disease and Biology, and a minor in Physiology, Katie has headed to Women’s College Hospital to investigate the impact of arsenic on breast cancer outcomes with the Kotsopoulos lab. Both Cino and Katie are also serving as First Year Representatives on the Nutritional Sciences Graduate Students’ Association (NSGSA) within the Department.
Q1: What led you to decide to pursue your graduate studies within the DNS at the University of Toronto (UofT)?
Cino: “Initially, I knew that I wanted to pursue basic science research that could have a global health impact. After working as a summer student in Dr. Bandsma’s lab I knew that the research being done in his lab was something that I wanted to be a part of for a longer term. This directed me towards the DNS. I liked the fact that the Department is smaller than some of the others at UofT and that there is such a diverse array of research being conducted within the Department.”
Katie: “I was drawn to the multi-disciplined research that could be conducted through the DNS at UofT. The faculty as a whole publishes very reputable research in many disciplines, which allows for the ability to combine nutrition with other research interests. Personally, I have always been interested in the intersection of nutrition on disease prevalence and management. As such, the DNS provided me a unique opportunity to combine my interests! Our program is also nice and small, which really personalizes the experience!.
Q2: At this time, what is your proposed research topic?
Cino: “My proposed research topic is looking at the potential that nicotinamide supplementation has to rescue the intestinal enteropathy observed in severe malnutrition. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that has been found to be specifically lacking in malnourished children in Malawi. Nicotinamide, which is synthesized from tryptophan, is a component of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+). NAD+ is essential to live as it is necessary for ATP synthesis, among other things. Thus, we are interested at looking at the effects that this dietary supplement may have on our model of severe malnutrition.”
Katie: “My research involves looking at the relationship between arsenic exposure and breast cancer risk. I am looking to better understand the determinants of arsenic exposure, specifically from elements of diet and environmental exposures. Overall, I am interested in seeing how these predictors can impact breast cancer risk.”
Q3: What are you most looking forward to in the years to come?
Cino: “I am really looking forward for what the next two years have to hold. Primarily, I am excited to be involved in some really impactful research and to see the outcome of this project. In addition to the research, I am looking forward to getting involved with the NSGSA!”
Katie: “I’m most looking forward to working on my project! I’m really excited to go to work each day and conduct the next step in my research project. I am also excited to get to know other students in the Department! Our weekly seminars allow for the opportunity to get to know other people in the program and get a glimpse into what they are studying. Finally, I’m excited to participate in the NSGSA as one of the First Year Representatives. I can’t wait to see everyone out at events throughout the year!”
Q4: Thinking back on the process to become a student in the Department, do you have any advice for other prospective students looking to apply to the DNS?
Cino: “My biggest piece of advice would be in regards to finding a supervisor. Be persistent, especially when someone has agreed to meet with you! Supervisors’ schedules are extremely busy and emails can easily get lost their inbox. Send reminder emails and follow up. Also, don’t forget to ask for references [for your application to UofT] well in advance of the submission deadline!”
Katie: “It’s very important to meet with potential supervisors before you submit your application! Our program focuses on independent research, so it is crucial that you are excited and engaged by your project. It can also be helpful to chat with other graduate students in a potential supervisor’s lab. They can give insight on what a typical day may be, which is great information to help you make a decision! Finally, ask about funding expectations early. It can be awkward but will only help you in the long run!”
Recently convocated graduate students: Jessica Omand and Sara Stinson
Jessica Omand and Sara Stinson have both successfully defended their respective graduate degrees in 2018. Jessica completed her PhD under the joint supervision of Drs. Jonathon Maguire and Debbie O’Connor. Primarily based at St. Michael’s Hospital, Jessica’s dissertation explored vitamin D and health service utilization on upper respiratory tract infections and asthma in young children. She is now completing a post-doc with Dr. Catherine Birken at SickKids. Sara finished her MSc with Dr. Elena Comelli, based at the Department, for her thesis titled, ‘The nutritional programming effects of probiotic lactobacilli on bone health in CD-1 Elite mice’. She has since started her PhD at the Novo Nordisk Centre for Basic Metabolic Research in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen under the supervision of Dr. Torben Hansen.
Q1: Can you briefly describe your dissertation research?
Jessica: “For my dissertation, I linked a large cohort of young children (TARGet Kids!) to health administrative data housed at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES). I used observational methods to examine the relationship between 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration in children ages 0-6 years, vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy and childhood and health service utilization for upper respiratory tract infections and asthma in childhood. I was amazed at the incredible access to information using the data holdings at ICES and research potential with big data. I was surprised at how many young children visit their primary care physician and emergency department for the upper respiratory tract infections.”
Sara: “The gut microbiome is an additional organ of the human body with established physiological relationships with the other organs. A novel field of research involves investigating the mechanisms behind the “gut-microbiota-bone axis”. My MSc research sought to investigate if maternal administration of a probiotic lactobacilli mixture since conception through end of lactation could beneficially program the bone health of offspring at young adulthood using murine models. I was most surprised by the timing of administration, in which improvements in bone structure of the offspring were observed when the probiotics were supplemented to the mothers specifically during pregnancy and lactation. Therefore, there are critical windows of exposure that lead to long-lasting improvements in bone health at a later stage in development.”
Q2: Throughout your years in the DNS graduate program, what do you feel were the most valuable lesson/s that you learned?
Jessica: “If the research results are not what you expected and are not supported by your hypothesis don’t be discouraged! Two of my studies resulted in null findings but these studies were both published and are still important for informing future research directions.”
Sara: “The most valuable lesson I have learned is getting involved with extracurriculars, as it can change your graduate experience. I believe some of the friends you make during your graduate studies can be your support system if things don’t go as planned in the lab. Some examples of good communities to join are the NSGSA, DNS Volleyball team, Canadian Nutrition Society, and NutriNews. There are also great opportunities to start your own club at the Department.”
Q3: What was a paper that you found to be particularly interesting or impactful in the course of completing you degree?
Jessica: “I recently read a paper (not related to my dissertation) on cohort multiple randomised controlled trials (cmRCT) also known as a ‘trial within cohort’ by Clare Relton and her colleagues at the University of Sheffield in England – this paper sparked my interest and impacted my thinking about the future of pragmatic RCTs. I have always been shocked by the cost and time required to execute large scale RCTs, but these methods pose a new innovative design of using a large cohort of patients as the source of participants for RCTs. I think these methods will be used more frequently in the future!”
Sara: “The first paper to show that a probiotic strain is capable of maintaining normal growth in murine models of chronic undernutrition (Schwarzer, et al., 2016). This paper really provides evidence that there is a link between the bacteria in our gut and growth, and the potential for applying dietary intervention such as probiotics as therapeutics in human malnutrition. This applies to my research in the sense of evaluating how we can modify the gut microbiome with targeted interventions, such as probiotics to program developmental trajectories and health.”
Q4: If you could offer some words of advice to prospective DNS graduate students, what would they be?
Jessica: “If I were to make two suggestions to new or prospective DNS students they would be: 1) take Biostatistics I and II (if possible [through the Dalla Lana School of Public Health’s biostatistics course offerings]) in order to have a good understanding of the appropriate methods for your study and interpretation of the results; and 2) if possible start and maintain collaborations early in your graduate program.”
Sara: “Some words of advice to prospective DNS graduate students would be to explore the links outside of the Nutrition field. I think there should be more collaborations with DNS and other departments at UofT, as you may find that others are researching similar ideas. This could be in the form of a journal club, in which you can learn about the most recent research in your field of study and discuss any problems that may arise related to your common research interests.”
Thank-you Cino, Katie, Jessica and Sara for sharing your experiences and insights, and all the best with your degrees and future careers! ●
Relton C, et al. Rethinking pragmatic randomised controlled trials: introducing the “cohort multiple randomised controlled trial” design. BMJ. 2010; 340:c1066.
Schwarzer M, et al. Lactobacillus plantarum strain maintains growth of infant mice during chronic undernutrition. Science. 2016; 351(6275):854-7.
Jo-Anna Baxter is a 4th year PhD student in the lab of Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta at the Department of Nutritional Sciences