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About the Institute

Profile of Angela McDonald

Photo of Angela McDonald
Angela McDonald, Graduate student

Angela McDonald

  • Graduate Student, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up here in Toronto where I attended an arts-focused high school majoring in dance and drama. It wasn’t until my second year of university that I decided to drastically change fields and undertake a science degree at York University.

Upon completion of my undergraduate degree, I went on to attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario to begin my graduate work in cardiac physiology. I then moved back to Toronto to complete my graduate studies in biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.

2. What are you researching right now?
Currently, I am working on a few different projects, but my overall interest is in the early molecular regulation of definitive endoderm development. To explain, the definitive endoderm is the tissue of the developing embryo that gives rise to the digestive and respiratory tracts and associated organs such as the liver, lung and pancreas – organs which are of particular interest in the field of regenerative medicine.

I am using embryonic stem cells as well as reprogramming technology to try to understand the underlying regulation of the developmental processes that allow for organs like the pancreas, liver and lung to be formed. I am specifically focusing on the early definitive endoderm before it gives rise to specific organs but I also have a particular research interest in the liver.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
My all-time favourite scientist is Rosalind Franklin. I admire Rosalind Franklin because of the significant role she played in the discovery of the structure of the DNA helix, although she was not credited for it at the time. It was actually James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. However it was Rosalind Franklin’s work using x-ray crystallography that led to their model and ultimately led to Watson, Crick and Wilkins’ Nobel Prize in 1962.

Photo 51 is the nickname given to an X-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by Franklin in 1952 that is considered critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick based their models on this image.

Rosalind Franklin is particularly inspiring as a scientist because she was one of a few female scientists in the early 1950s. Franklin was working at King’s College, Cambridge University when conducting her x-ray crystallography work to identify DNA structure. At that time, King’s College was not a particularly woman-friendly environment. Despite a harsh working environment, Rosalind Franklin contributed an immense amount to the field and advancement of science.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I think that the discovery of DNA is the most important scientific breakthrough: the fact that DNA exists and that genes are what we inherit from our parents.

This discovery gave us an understanding of the basis of human life and the inheritance of characteristics from our parents and has led to the broad research field of genetics. Without that understanding there wouldn’t be fields of research like mine in molecular biology and the advances we have made in understanding early development, when mutations happen, how they lead to disease and how we can develop therapies to address the underlying causes of those diseases. None of that would be possible without understanding DNA.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
As I mentioned earlier, I spent a significant amount of time dancing earlier on in my life. I continue to take classes in ballet and hip hop. I also enjoy travelling and take the opportunity to do so as much as work will allow it. I love SCUBA diving and I like to build my travel plans around SCUBA diving destinations. I particularly love travelling in Asia – I have been to China, Japan and various countries in Southeast Asia. Last summer I was fortunate enough to go to Hong Kong to attend a week-long stem cell course. Following the course I traveled to mainland China for a few weeks and was lucky enough do some exploreing and even climb the Great Wall of China.

6. Why science?
I started out in the arts and really enjoyed dancing, but I knew that a career in the arts would be very difficult. In my second year of university, I enrolled in a few physiology courses and it really excited me to learn how the body works, especially because I had an interest in dance and fitness. I started taking more science courses and the critical thinking and research critique aspects in senior level courses really intrigued me. 

I began volunteering in a cardiovascular physiology research lab and became more and more fascinated by current scientific problems. Now, as a graduate student driving my own research projects to answer scientific questions that interest me I enjoy the problem solving and creativity involved in studying early developmental gene programs. I enjoy that every project is different and I am excited everyday by the challenge of the next puzzle.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is a really exciting place to be, especially in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Program. It is a very collaborative environment and there are so many resources available for research. I have worked at a few different universities and institutes in research and SickKids by far has the greatest resources and the greatest breadth of research combining both basic science and clinical translation. 

For trainees in particular, SickKids offers a lot of support and resources for students interested in careers in science. There are a lot of seminars and workshops on career development which I have found very useful.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I think the field of developmental and stem cell biology is an area of research with many controversial questions. One hot topic of debate right now is whether or not cell-reprogramming technology will be useful for regenerative medicine. A few years ago a Scientist in Japan was the first to demonstrate that human skin cells can be converted into stem cell-like cells that have the ability to differentiate and form all cell types of the body. It is incredibly exciting that now Scientists all over the world (including here at Sick Kids) are able to take patient skin cells and turn them into other cells types. One day this technology could provide an alternative way of gaining therapeutically relevant cells to treat human disease. For now however, there is a lot of work to be done including improving the way in which we reprogram the cells that needs to be done before we can think about clinical applications.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am actually flipping through the Lonely Planet book on Hawaii. I am taking a trip to Hawaii this summer and I am on the lookout for the best dive spots. I understand there is a spot in Hawaii off one of the big islands which is near an active volcano and apparently, you can dive up close and see lava flowing into the ocean. The little time I have for pleasure reading right now is dedicated to researching my next travel adventures.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
The best advice I could give someone is to jump right into research and get some lab experience. I think it is hard to know whether research is something you would like to do or would be good at unless you dive in and try it. After completing some science courses as an undergrad and realizing that science was pretty cool, I approached a professor and asked if I could volunteer in her lab so that I could see what it was actually like to be involved in research. I volunteered for one year before undertaking two undergraduate research projects. It was my experience in the lab that made me realize that science was a career path that I wanted to take. Many students really enjoy their science classes, but getting into a lab and really getting your hands dirty and conducting experiments in a lab is really a whole new thing.

Once you have made that decision that you want to pursue a research career, all of that experience in the lab will also help with your applications and to build your CV.

11. What is StemCellTalks?
StemCellTalks is a national stem cell biology and practical ethics outreach initiative for high school students that myself and two other graduate students from the University of Toronto, David Grant and Paul Cassar, have organized. We developed the program in partnership with Let’s Talk Science, which is a national science outreach organization, and the Stem Cell Network. Early last fall, Paul attended the World Stem Cell Summit and was really excited about the outreach work done by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Upon his return he recruited David and I to develop a stem cell biology outreach program. We began giving Stem Cell Biology talks in high schools around the GTA. The high school students we spoke to were really excited about stem cell research and we decided to create a day long symposium for high school students.

In March of this year we invited 150 students from across the greater Toronto area to join us at our first event. We reached out to the Toronto District School Board, the Toronto Catholic School Board, the Ontario Science Centre Science School as well as a various private schools and we had five to ten students from each participating school attend. We were able to entice some pretty high profile stem cell scientists from across Canada to participate at the symposium. The one-day symposium was divided into two sessions. The morning session was dedicated to stem cell biology, which included a basic introduction to stem cells and their various potential therapeutic applications. World-renowned stem cell scientists Dr. Janet Rossant (Chief of Research, SickKids) and Dr. Jim Till opened up the morning session by sharing their personal experiences about their careers in research. The afternoon focused more on ethical considerations for regenerative medicine and stem cell research. Alternative to moral considerations we discussed practical ethics and topics that are directly relevant to scientific discoveries that could lead to medical advances. For this symposium, we focused on cord blood banking as it is a prevalent issue in our society. For this part of the discussion, we invited a panel ethicists and lawyers who are members of the Stem Cell Network to lead that discussion.

An exciting part of this event was the event structure which included many different formats throughout the day including lectures, debates, panel discussions as well as breakout sessions. The various formats of the symposium gave students the ability to discuss their questions and ideas with graduate students, post doctoral fellows and principle investigators. It was truly an interactive experience.

StemCellTalks was an incredibly exciting and successful event, and we have been asked by the Stem Cell Network to turn this into a national program. We have recruited graduate students from other universities in Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax and Vancouver, who all helped to facilitate our Stem Cell Talks event here in Toronto. These volunteers will now be taking the educational materials that we developed here in Toronto and will host satellite StemCellTalks events in their home cities. The next StemCellTalks will be taking place this fall in Vancouver.

Let’s Talk Science will also be launching new resource area dedicated to stem cell biology on their education and teacher resource section of the Curiocity website to correspond with StemCellTalks. Many of the educational materials that were produced for the Toronto StemCellTalks symposium will be posted including the video taped keynote talks and breakout sessions so that students and teachers across Canada will have access to these topics to facilitate further discussions in Canadian classrooms.

May 2010

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