Seth Tigchelaar was a participant in the 2017 UBC Three Minute Thesis competition, with his presentation, “Biomarkers for Spinal Cord Injury”.
Current methods to diagnose injury severity in patients with spinal cord injury (SCI) are challenging; nearly half of the patients that enter the emergency room are unable to get accurately diagnosed in the acute setting, in part due to sedation, unconsciousness, or an inability to respond because of multiple injuries (head trauma). The assessment to diagnose injury severity requires a patient's ability to respond, through a series of sensory and motor tests (called the ISNCSCI exam). To try and address these challenges, I am trying to discover biological markers (biomarkers) of injury severity in patients with SCI. Biomarkers are quite common, and some examples that would be most familiar would be markers such as troponin for heart failure, or CD4 count for HIV. For the assessment of injury severity in SCI, I study tiny pieces of genetic material, called microRNA. When the spinal cord is injured, we believe specific microRNA are released from injured neurons into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the spinal cord, and ultimately into the blood. Our lab has the world's largest collection of blood and CSF samples from patients with SCI and using these samples, I profile hundreds of microRNA molecules using Next Generation Sequencing. With this technology, we can discover microRNA that is altered in the CSF and blood as a result of SCI and use these to determine how severely injured a patient is, and even have the potential to predict their recovery trajectory!
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?
I enjoy the freedom and independence of graduate research. While we probably work 60 hours a week and more, it is up to me to actually decide when I will work and I love that. If I have an appointment during the week, I can do that and make up time on the weekend! If I need a Monday off, I can make it up another time. I thrive with this style of scheduling as compared to a typical 9-5 job, and I often work far harder, because I love what I do!
Why did you decide to study at UBC?
Originally, I am from Michigan but I grew up in Vancouver. I was able to see the contrast in Vancouver's beautiful surroundings, and I hope that I am able to remain in Vancouver throughout my career. I am passionate about the outdoors - camping, hiking, fishing, skiing - and Vancouver has it all! UBC was an obvious choice with regards to its location and I am lucky to be able to study here. On a side note: I see bald eagles flying outside my office window at Pharmaceutical Sciences, daily! You can't beat our view.
What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?
The Neuroscience program at UBC has some of the world's best researchers. On top of that, the facilities that have been added to our campus for neuroscience research are state of the art! ICORD was just built in 2009, the Centre for Comparative Medicine in 2011, Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2012, and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in 2014. The DMC is Canada’s largest integrated brain centre, and I think these types of facilities contribute to the world-class researchers (and research) that we have at UBC and I am incredibly lucky to be able to conduct my research at all four of these facilities.
What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?
My newest activity for post-experiment de-stressing is fishing! I recently discovered that we have massive Chinook salmon just off of our shores at Point Grey and I can literally catch these beautiful fish, just steps away from UBC. The rare occasions that I have some free time, I head there for a day of fishing.
What advice do you have for new graduate students?
My best advice is to work your butts off and attend as many conferences, research symposiums, poster sessions as possible! We are always presenting our work to a diverse range of people, whether they are not in research at all, or whether they are our supervisors. Having the ability to communicate effectively is very important, and there are so many conferences available at UBC that can be taken advantage of (not to mention prize money!).