Our BCDRN trainee profile this spring is Cara Ellis, a Post Doctoral Fellow in the UBC Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences in Dr. Tim Kieffer’s lab in the Life Sciences Centre. Cara is a multitalented scientist and a role model for young women interested in STEM. Cara shared her story of how she came to pursue her post doctoral fellowship at UBC and her advice for young students considering diabetes research.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Yes, Edmonton has cold winters (average of -10.4°C in January, according to Wikipedia), but Edmonton also has beautiful summers, incredibly dramatic thunderstorms, and the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America. Edmonton also has the assets of my three amazing sisters and my wonderful parents, so I think it is a great city. If I sound defensive, ask Dr. Tim Kieffer how he feels about Edmonton – but I think I get less of a hard time than Dr. Christine Doucette about Winnipeg!
What did you study in your undergrad and where
For my undergrad, I studied Biomedical Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta. It was a new program combining traditional engineering courses (statistics, calculus, linear algebra), materials engineering courses (for example, hydro- and pyrometallurgy, failure analysis, and mineral processing) and some basic biochemistry, physiology, and biomedical applications of materials. I really enjoyed the program and, beyond the course material, it taught me important skills of how to think through problems, work in teams, and that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
What got you interested in diabetes research?
As part of the degree requirement for my undergrad, I needed to spend a summer performing research in a biology lab. I asked a friend’s dad for a recommendation, and he suggested talking to Dr. Greg Korbutt. Dr. Korbutt had a very cool materials-based project that he allowed me to work on for the summer. I didn’t know anything about diabetes, let alone how to work in a biology lab (I’d never held a pipette!) but I found the work fascinating and satisfying. I asked Dr. Korbutt if I could stick around for grad school, and he accepted. I completed my PhD with Greg in 2015 and enjoyed every minute of it!
How far along are you in your postdoctoral fellowship and what do you hope to achieve in 2020 with your research?
I’ve been in Dr. Tim Kieffer’s lab since I completed my PhD in 2015, so I am coming up on five years. There are always more projects that excite me, and obviously more work to be done until we have truly cured diabetes, so it is easy to keep trying to do more! However, this year I plan to wrap up many of my long term projects (the longest was almost 80 weeks) and spend more time completing data analysis and writing.
Any advice for trainees starting out on how to connect with colleagues?
Sometimes we feel pressures to act a certain way – maybe mimicking the successful PhD candidate in your lab, or trying to be more or less “professional” than our true selves. However, there are many paths to success, and your definition of success might not be the same as someone else’s. Be yourself. You may feel like who you are isn’t enough to impress, but it is! The connections you make when you are being authentic will carry you through your career. And don’t miss out on BCDRN events, particularly those partnered with the Young and Type 1 group!
What was your favourite research event/meeting to attend?
I love the annual A-BC Islet Biology Workshop. I’ve attended most meetings since the event was founded, and I always look forward to it. The quality of trainee presentations is so high, and I come back to the lab overflowing with ideas. I think the relaxed atmosphere brings out the very best of everyone and allows even first time presenters the chance to shine. I’ve made many lasting friendships over the years (and had some incredible runs on the mountain). This past year, I was given the opportunity to present as a senior postdoc, and it was such an honour to go from presenting preliminary data in my first years as a PhD student in the early meetings to showcasing the work I have been doing as a postdoc. If trainees have the opportunity to go to this event, definitely go!