Emma Mcilwraith, Physiology

Student Name: Emma McIlwraith
Department: Physiology

Research Title: Undergraduate and soon-to-be M.Sc. Student
Supervisor: Dr. Denise Belsham

Description of Research
I have just completed my undergraduate studies and during that time I had the opportunity to work on a number of research projects. This includes my current research on Phoenixin, a recently identified reproductive peptide expressed in the hypothalamus. The Belsham lab previously demonstrated that this peptide positively influences neural control of reproduction and identified an orphan G-protein coupled receptor as its receptor. It is currently unknown how Phoenixin itself is regulated and therefore I am examining what compounds affect Phoenixin expression.  So far I have looked at the effects of estrogen, the endocrine disrupting chemical, bisphenol A, and the dietary saturated fatty acid, palmitate. Identifying the effects of these compounds will lead to a better understanding of reproductive control of Phoenixin expression, which has implications for puberty and fertility.

Choice of Department
I became interested in the Physiology Specialist Program after I got excited reading about the third and fourth year courses, including a couple on pregnancy and regenerative medicine, offered by the department. So far I have found this field to be fascinating. I think it is incredible how the majority of processes in our body are extremely complex and yet we go through day-to-day life completely unaware of how these complex systems work. Learning about physiology has its benefits as I found I could relate what I’ve learned in my courses to understanding my own body.

In the Department of Physiology there are many opportunities for meeting other students. There are undergraduate and graduate student associations that host events like game nights, field trips, and sessions on how to get involved in research.
If you are interested in learning about other types of research, there are seminars for graduate students to hear about research in other departments and institutions. For summer undergraduate students who are completing research projects, there are various presentations and discussions by professors from the Physiology department so you can get a taste of other research going on. There are also several summer funding opportunities for undergraduate students, for example, last summer I received an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award and this summer a University of Toronto Excellence Award (UTEA).

Experience Looking for a Research Opportunity
My first research experience took place the summer after 1st year when I applied for a Research Opportunity Program (ROP) 299Y course. While I was waiting to hear back, I received an email from my biology TA asking if anyone wanted to volunteer in her lab for the summer and I jumped at the chance. That summer I was exposed to both molecular genetics and ecological plant research. It was great to learn about different types of research and different techniques. The application process was fairly simple for both of these positions, the ROP299Y had a form to fill out and the volunteer position required a resume and an enthusiastic email. It was simply a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities offered.
For my fourth year physiology research project, the application process required a bit more effort as it involved combing through the physiology faculty directory, reading their papers and contacting them. Overall, there are lots of opportunities at U of T to get involved in research.

Why did you Choose this Supervisor?
I chose Dr Belsham’s lab because of my interests in endocrinology, the brain, and reproduction, as it is particularly fascinating to me that the brain controls reproduction. This research topic was not the only factor in my decision, one other factor was that Dr. Belsham’s profile on the physiology website listed all of her students including many undergraduates. This led me to believe that she enjoyed mentoring and that as an undergraduate I would have plenty of support and guidance in the lab, which was confirmed after I started there. She was also very generous in supporting me in presenting my fourth year project at both a national and international conference.

What’s your Experience with Research?
Perhaps weirdly, I have fun writing tests when the questions require application of knowledge and are like little puzzles. To me, conducting research is like trying to solve a giant puzzle. Sometimes it can be frustrating when experiments are not working or I am getting a result different from what I expected, but I readjust my thinking and try to figure out what went wrong or how the unexpected result changes my hypothesis. It is an exciting feeling when something works after many unsuccessful trials, and because I enjoy my work it is easy to persevere.

How’s the Social Experience with Research?
Research is not a solitary endeavour. Each day I work with graduate students, undergraduate students and a lab technician. They are an excellent resource for the finer points of techniques and have a wealth of knowledge. They are also the people I see the most throughout the year and it is always fun to go out for lunch, solve riddles and eat birthday cake with them. Outside of the lab, you can build personal and professional relationships within the department such as with other faculty members and graduate students and with new people you meet at meetings and conferences.

What are Your Future Career Plans?
Beginning in September 2017, I will be starting my M.Sc. and continuing my research in the Belsham lab for all the reasons mentioned above. I was fortunate in receiving an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship to fund my M.Sc. Afterwards, I hope to continue exciting research in a PhD program.

Quote: “Don’t see other people’s success as your failure”

Advice: Take advantage of the services U of T offers, for example, the writing or career centres. Get involved with clubs or activities that interest you, they can develop into leadership opportunities and it will make your experience more enjoyable.