Student balances academia and brain cancer research
Four years of undergrad studies, followed by two more working on a master’s degree, and topped off with a medical school finale. This academic docket is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being a successful scientist.
Alexandra Bohm, has only begun her master’s degree at the University of Calgary, yet her work-load is off the charts. As her degree is thesis based, she essentially has a full-time job combined with her studies.
“I've started to realize you live in the lab when you're a grad student,” Bohm said. “…and thats fine because I love what I’m doing, I really do enjoy it, but its a lot of work. You have to write your thesis and apply for awards on top of everything going on.”
When she’s not working in the lab from 8 A.M to 5 P.M, she's scrambling to find time for experiments, meetings, lectures, journal club, and instructional periods to learn new skills, such as handling mice.
Before starting her master’s degree, Bohm was working in a lab during the third and fourth year summers of her undergrad at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital. The time she spent in the lab working with blood cancers is what inspired her to get involved with cancer therapy in her master’s degree.
“A really cool part of the work I was doing there was shadowing my supervisor, who was an MD, in the clinic. I got to see how what I was doing was directly applicable to patients.” Bohm said.
“That was something that I really loved. It’s hard when you're working in the lab to realize the big picture, to recognize that I'm working on this disease that actually helps people, not just this one cell that I'm looking at.”
These experiences humanized the lab work Bohm was involved in, strengthening her desire to attend medical school after completing her master’s degree and displacing the stereotype that scientists don’t enjoy or do well with the social aspects of science, as well as academia.
“I think there’s a lot of judgement on scientists,” Bohm began. “…that we’re all these stiff people in the white lab coats. It’s actually a very friendly atmosphere. I love the people that I work with, we have a great relationship.”
Bohm doesn’t believe the general public realizes that scientists don’t just sit on their lab bench and work away in solitude. “There’s a [team environment] and we all work together, there’s a kind of veil over the scientific community as the public don’t really realize what’s going on.”
Currently, Bohm is dealing with cancer research at the University of Calgary Foothills Campus. She’s working with a type of cancer called glioblastoma, which is one of the most common forms of primary brain tumours. Unfortunately, it’s also the most malignant.
“When a person is diagnosed, usually adults, they have a couple months to live. The prognosis is very, very poor. Because of this, we’re looking at new treatments, it’s really interesting stuff.” Bohm said.
Cancer has many different characteristics that vary from normal cells, for example cancer cells can proliferate, or grow, very quickly, as well as metastasize and affect other organs. Because of these differences from normal cells, Bohm and her lab are able to work on therapies that directly target the cancer cells versus the normal, healthy cells.
Bohm couldn’t disclose too many details concerning the research her team is conducting as it hasn’t been published.
She explained that cancer therapy is starting to evolve from general chemo therapy and radiation, which attack the healthy cells, as well as the cancerous cells. This is why people undergoing traditional cancer treatments get so ill.
In contrast to the standard of care for cancer patients, Bohm is now working on targeted drug therapies which only attack cancerous cells, leaving the healthy cells unaffected.
Currently, there are multiple clinical trials that deal with this type of targeted drug therapy. One example includes looking at the specific subset of proteins expressed by a patient, and treating with a specified patient centred therapy plan, this way certain therapies that will exhibit the best results for the specified patients can be chosen.
While clinical trials are having spectacular success, Bohm believes trials like this aren’t as valued by the public due to a common misunderstanding about cancer in general.
“People still think we’re looking for the cure for cancer. That doesn’t really exist,” Bohm said. She explained that there are a number of different cures for a number of different types of cancer. “Whether it be breast, bladder, or brain, within every subset every cancer has variations.”
“It’s a slow evolution,” Bohm said. “People are being diagnosed with cancer and the current standards of care are still chemo and radiation, but clinical trails are going to try to fix that.”
Thumbnail image courtesy of Alexandra Bohm
- By Tara Rathgeber