BCDRN Trainee Spotlight: Jacqueline Barnet, PhD student

BCDRN Trainee Spotlight: Jacqueline Barnet, PhD student

Our BCDRN trainee profile this winter is Jacqueline Barnet, a PhD candidate in the UBCO Irving K Barber Faculty of Science working in Dr. Deanna Gibson’s lab. Jacqueline shares her personal journey and what brought her to Kelowna to pursue her PhD at UBCO in the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology department.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Santa Monica, California, to two Canadian parents. We moved to Canada when I was 12 to help take care of my ageing grandparents – and it was love at first sight for me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I do miss California, though – especially the food! I would walk 500 miles for an In-N-Out burger (animal style, of course!).

What did you study in your undergrad and where?

My road to University was not linear. I struggled with a severe anxiety disorder most of my life, and as a result, I ended up writing my GED, and I stopped attending high school in grade 8. I helped take care of my grandparents through numerous struggles, including colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. This experience of caring for my grandparents helped shape my desire to learn more about health and disease. I began taking high school courses, and eventually, I satisfied the local community college admission requirements. Reentering the formal education system after a 7-year hiatus was NOT easy – there were struggles, but eventually, I completed my 2-year associate’s degree in science and then I began attending UBC Okanagan to complete my 3rd and 4th years of study. That anxiety that had plagued me most of my youth had not disappeared and those same challenges I faced in high school were still there. However, now I was at a top-tier research University, and there was a world of new experiences available to me. I began volunteering in a microbiology-based laboratory that focused primarily on gut health, as my grandfather had just lost his battle to colon cancer a few years prior. That was the tipping point – I was hooked. Suddenly, I worked towards a goal so much larger than myself, something I was passionate about and something I loved. For the first time in my life, I was excited to go to school. I ended up majoring in microbiology, and I completed an honours degree. I also have a minor in psychology – inspired by my struggles with mental health. I am still working and studying in the very same lab I completed my honours degree in. I’d love to see the look on my 14-year-old self’s face if I could tell them they would be pursuing a Ph.D. one day!

What got you interested in diabetes research?

Like most Canadians, I have been personally touched by diabetes. I have a strong family history of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. However, the most profound experience came from my best friend growing up. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 13, and I saw how this diagnosis completely changed her entire life. I would accompany her to appointments with nurses, and her mom would teach me about how many carbohydrates were in the movie theatre popcorn we consumed and how many units of insulin she would need to take! That was the first time I heard the word “autoimmune disorder.” I was privy to a lot of challenging conversations, and I saw the struggles and stress her entire family faced due to her diagnosis. While I work in a predominantly gut-based research lab, we do study metabolism given that the gut microbiome also plays such a critical role in metabolic health, including diabetes onset and severity. I knew that I wanted to work diabetes into my research, to honour my childhood friend, and be part of finding a treatment or even a cure for her.

How far along are you in your graduate program and what do you hope to achieve in 2021 with your research?

I am currently coming to the end of my second year of my Ph.D. Asking what I hope to achieve is a loaded question for someone presently attempting to complete a Ph.D. during a global pandemic – ha ha. I’ve been fortunate that I have been able to continue working on my project part-time throughout COVID, but I am excited to get back into the lab full-time in 2021. The first two years have been predominantly conducting experiments and collecting data. I hope to begin really analyzing that data and putting the pieces together – I can’t wait to come share my findings with you all next year during Diabetes Research Day!

Any funny stories to share with the trainee community?

When you work in a microbiology lab, there is no shortage of funny or amusing anecdotes. During my undergraduate degree, I mentioned I volunteered in my current research lab. I was a professional poo-smasher! Over the summer, it was my job to homogenize infant stool samples collected for a clinical study. I would grind these frozen samples for analysis (by hand, using a mortar, pestle and liquid nitrogen.) I was able to homogenize hundreds of samples and I am very proud of the line “expert poo smasher” on my CV!

Any advice for trainees starting out on how to connect with colleagues?

As someone who struggles with anxiety daily – I know it can be challenging! Remember, though, you all share a common goal – a love of science and a desire to help people who suffer from life-altering diseases. We all have a profoundly personal reason or story that brought us to where we are today. That is one of the best and most meaningful “ice-breakers” I know.

What was your favourite research event/meeting to attend?

I always love attending Okanagan Diabetes Research Day. I am constantly amazed and in awe of all of the incredible research happening across BC in this field. I love the interdisciplinary nature of the work – so many diverse areas working towards a common goal. I also had the opportunity to attend Canadian Digestive Diseases Week in Montreal in March. That was a fantastic experience (not to mention the food in Montreal! Can you tell how much I LOVE food?).

What is your dream travel destination when covid is over?

I’ve always wanted to visit Italy (again – food!). My fiancé and I were also planning to get married this year. Unfortunately, we had to change our plans due to COVID. We will try again next year, and we would like to have a honeymoon road trip down the pacific coast so he can see California and where I grew up (and so I can finally get my In-N-Out burger fix!).

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