Madeline Lauener

Characterization and expansion of regulatory natural killer cells for the therapy of chronic graft-versus-host disease
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

My initial desire to work in the health science field and pursue a graduate degree resulted due to personal life experience. At the age of twelve, I was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was devastating news for my family and I, though we were focused on maintaining a positive outlook to overcome this obstacle together. Prior to this event, I was an extremely motivated child, and already dedicated to working hard to achieve my dreams of becoming a doctor or, ironically, a cancer scientist. After my diagnosis and witnessing the effects such a disease has on children and families my career goals very quickly specified to becoming a pediatric oncologist. Throughout my grade eight year, I was treated with chemotherapy, not missing a single day of school as I felt it crucial to avoid falling behind academically and socially. Unfortunately, within one month of finishing treatment, the cancer had relapsed. I was then treated with a stem cell transplant, requiring mega doses of chemotherapy and full body radiation. Fortunately, this treatment was successful. A few months later I returned to school, where I worked on gaining my strength, achieving high grades, and participating in extracurriculars to adequately position myself to pursue post-secondary and achieve my career goals. My academic trajectory began to move towards research as a result of the treatment I received for my relapsed cancer. I was the first child in North America and first person in Canada to receive the targeted chemotherapy, known as Brentuximab, in preparation for a stem cell transplant. At the time, this drug was being utilized for adult clinical trials, mainly in the US. This drug not only cleared my cancer, but resulted in minimal side effects, and ten years later it serves as a frontline drug for relapsed lymphoma patients. The advantages of this targeted therapy versus the chemotherapy I received less than a year previous inspired my fascination of how the body functions and malfunctions, and then how to address these occurrences using scientific methods, such as those which lead to the development of Brentuximab. I became very passionate about research related to targeted cancer treatments, and diseases that occur due to cancer treatment. As a result of these interests and passions, I became determined to not only work towards becoming a medical doctor to treat patients who experienced similar health circumstances to my own, but also contribute to the improvement of treatments within the oncology field. This led to my studying health sciences for my bachelor’s degree, beginning research at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute (BCCHR) in a pediatric oncology laboratory during my undergrad, and continuing my research project in graduate school as a PhD student, with plans to attend medical school after my graduate studies. This training will allow me to reach my goals of combining research and clinical practice to have the ability to make significant contributions to scientific discoveries related to disease, while directly improving the lives of patients.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I decided to pursue my graduate studies at UBC because the goals of the university, which include the pursuit of excellence in research, learning, and engagement to foster global citizenship and advance a sustainable and just society, match closely to my personal interests, in addition to my academic and career objectives. It is known that UBC's Faculty of Medicine offers some of Canada’s most comprehensive and integrated programs. I am a firm believer in the necessity of multidisciplinary scientific approaches to achieve highly effective, and ethical results. The MSc and PhD research-based programs at UBC provide this comprehensive outlook, offering opportunities in various experimental areas related to human health and disease, my main research interests. Ultimately, UBC’s impressive reputation, cultural consciousness, and multitude of scientific opportunities resulted in my strong interest to complete my graduate studies at this institution.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

I was attracted to the graduate programs offered by the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine due their reputation of providing challenging, rigorous, and rewarding programs which offer a vast array of research opportunities across many sites, and their significant focus on student support. UBC’s department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine offers research programs that are well-funded, equipped, and housed in state-of-the-art buildings throughout top teaching hospitals in Vancouver with experts in the field mentoring students. Additionally, many of the faculty members of this department are global influencers in their respective fields. Further, this program is well acquainted with personnel who work and collaborate clinically, focusing on the translational aspects of moving research from bench to bedside. These were all important factors in my decision to pursue a PhD in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The best surprise about UBC is their tremendous focus on improving equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the fields of STEM. This is represented in the many presentations, workshops, and lecture series that take these factors into account, including the training of incoming and continuing students and faculty. I have had the opportunity to serve on an EDI committee at BCCHR and attend various sessions that speak to the importance of EDI and how we can work to improve representation and the environments we work and play in everyday.

UBC’s impressive reputation, cultural consciousness, and multitude of scientific opportunities resulted in my strong interest to complete my graduate studies at this institution.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

The aspects of my graduate program that I enjoy most include working hard with like-mind individuals to research our specific topics and discover new findings, contributing to the growing literature, and making a difference in the lives of people affected by cancer. The feeling of observing an interesting or unexpected result and sharing the findings with others, especially other students, researchers, and global influences in the field at national and international conferences, is one that can not be replicated! I also really enjoy taking part in student-led groups to promote student wellbeing, connectedness, and foster student's success in graduate school. To try and meet these goals I serve on the Trainee Networking Committee at BCCHR, and am the president of the Pathology Student Association for my department. Working with other students to provide events, services, or support to fellow students is an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

I anticipate that my future career will focus on the direct treatment and also research of new treatments for pediatric cancer patients. Having been a cancer patient myself, I am very familiar with the emotional difficulties of being in an environment of which children and families are going through unimaginable hardship, and this is very challenging to both experience and witness. I also care very deeply for people, and want to do all in my power to help those affected by cancer, but know that I won't be able to save everyone. This will be very difficult for me, and I'm sure health care professionals that work in the pediatric cancer field are very familiar with this feeling as well. However, even though this may be an especially challenging area to work within medicine and research, I also know how rewarding this field is and how impactful new findings and advancements to treatments and technologies are to real people. This is what holds my passion and makes the emotional challenges of this work worth it for me.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

My UBC graduate program, being a PhD in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, is challenging and rigorous, with a large emphasis on research productivity, in addition to course work and possible extracurricular endeavours, such as taking part in clubs, committees, or TAships. I believe that success and adequate preparation for this program includes a few factors. Firstly, I believe my undergraduate course work contributed to my preparation for grad school. For one to completely comprehend human disease and its mechanisms, and thus make substantial changes within the field, one must first understand the functions of the body, and the social and ethical implications of health, disease, and related research. My bachelor’s degree was in health sciences within the life sciences stream, allowing me to gain a diverse understanding of human health and disease at both the molecular and population level. I had completed courses in the areas of biochemistry, microbiology, human pathophysiology, pharmacology, health ethics, and beyond. My previous academic training made use of an interdisciplinary approach to science, health, and disease, which had prepared me to succeed in the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine PhD program and its associated graduate course work. Secondly, my personal life experiences also contributed to my desire to study and work in the area of health research and apply to my graduate program. I was treated for stage four Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at twelve years old and relapsed cancer at fourteen years old. As a result of this experience, I had become very involved with the health care system, long-term follow-up processes, and cancer survivor services. I came into my graduate program with much first-hand knowledge on past and current cancer treatments, medications, diagnoses, and side effects. In particular, I was very passionate about research related to cancer diagnosis, treatments, and mechanisms, but also had a strong interest in gaining knowledge in other disciplines related to pathology. This passion for research and making a difference contributed to my preparation for graduate school as a strong interest in the field can significantly impact a students enjoyment and success in the program. Additionally, prior to graduate school, I had already gained some research and lab experience which aided in my preparation for my PhD program. During my undergrad, I spent two summer semesters working at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute (BCCHR) as a summer research student in a pediatric oncology laboratory. Through this experience, I had the opportunity to attend conferences, practice multiple laboratory techniques and data analysis, create and present scientific posters at the provincial level, and coauthor a publication in Blood journal. Further, I was involved with the Summer Student Research Education Program, where I attended various workshops to improve research related skills, presented my work for my academic peers, and attended seminars showcasing the various research endeavors being completed at BCCHR and UBC by senior faculty. This exposure allowed me to gain practical research skills and obtain a broad understanding of local health initiatives and research. Finally, graduate school requires much organization and time-management to juggle the completion of a research project and all it entails, as well as course work, extracurricular activities, and personal responsibilities. During my undergraduate degree I worked towards completing a full course load while also volunteering weekly for several organizations, taking part in leadership roles, working part-time, and managing personal responsibilities. To take part in all these opportunities I had to practice maintaining strong organization and time-management skills, and also take time to engage in wellbeing and mental health practices to avoid burnout, which for me includes daily yoga and/or meditation. I feel that these opportunities more than adequately prepared me for the rigors of graduate school.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

In my spare time I enjoy reading, baking, spending time by the water, trying new foods, and travelling! I also enjoy making handmade candles for friends and family.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

My greatest advice to new graduate students would be to get involved! UBC offers an incredible amount of opportunities to meet new people, network, practice or learn new skills, and take part in activities that you are passionate about. Many of the good friends I have made throughout my time at UBC have been a direct result of my getting involved in clubs, committees, or activities that are of interest to me. Taking part in these kinds of opportunities also makes for a much more memorable and enriching experience for your time at UBC!


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