UBC Pharm Sci PhD candidate Jennifer Brown on choosing science, moving to Vancouver, and exploring enzyme pathways
Julia Kreger: First up, let’s talk about how you came to join UBC Pharm Sci. You completed a bachelor of science and then you studied education. Why did you decide to apply for grad school?
Jennifer Brown: It’s actually so funny that you asked that, because just on Friday I was asked to speak as a mentor at a conference hosted by Delta Police. And my talk was about that same question: “Why am I in science?”
Growing up, I thought science was a fine subject but it wasn’t my favourite. My plan was always to be a math teacher. But then in my undergraduate studies I realized I didn’t really like university level math, but I did like my biology and chemistry courses. So then my plan changed to become a science teacher.
In second year of university, one of my professors asked if I wanted to apply to work in her lab in the summer. It hadn’t even occurred to me this was an option! But I applied, and I was hired. And suddenly, it was everything I didn’t know I loved.
JK: What does her lab do?
JB: They study Giardia lamblia which is a protozoan parasite. Have you heard of the term “beaver fever”? If you go camping, one of the reasons you don’t want to drink the water is because there is Giardia in it. If ingested, it can cause some severe gastrointestinal troubles. I was doing was doing some protein characterization there in the lab and I loved it.
When I graduated and it was time to decide between completing teacher’s college or applying for grad school, I decided to go to teacher’s college first because teaching was something I’d always wanted to do. It was a great experience.
JK: It was a one-year program, right?
JB: Well, yes but no. When I was working on my bachelor of science, I was studying education concurrently. I was taking education courses and completing education practicums, but I needed that one last year to wrap it up. Teacher’s college was wonderful but the whole time I was thinking “science though – science is great.” And so after I finished the program, I decided to apply for grad school at UBC and at Western, which is near my hometown in London, Ontario.
JK: How did you decide on UBC?
JB: Deciding to come to Vancouver and UBC was a two-person decision because my partner also moved out here with me. I approached him about it and proposed that we either stay close to home or take this adventure to the West Coast. And he was like, “That’s it, we’re going to Vancouver.” I found Adam (Frankel) and it all worked out.
JK: Yes! Tell me about how you found Dr. Frankel.
JB: I went in with a very broad idea of what I wanted to do, which was protein characterization work. Although in the work I’m doing now the implications are very different, it still uses the same techniques I learned in my undergrad years. Ultimately, it seemed like Dr. Frankel’s research focus would be a good fit for me. I got in touch with him and he said I could join his lab.
JK: I read your abstract. Your research is about identifying a particular enzyme and its role in the stress response?
JB: Right. So our lab studies a family of enzymes called protein arginine methyltransferases (PRMTs). They’re important because they regulate proteins that are involved in a number of processes including RNA processing and gene expression. They’re very well conserved within mammals but also expressed in eukaryotes that are not mammals, such as yeast.
There are four identified PRMTs in yeast and there are a few different methylation patterns they can produce. But we think that there’s one more enzyme that hasn’t yet been identified. So that is what I’ve been trying to explore a little bit.
JK: What are your goals for this research?
JB: Originally, my most important goal was to find this enzyme. And that’s still exciting but one of my side goals has taken precedence, which is to figure out what other proteins it interacts with and explore the pathways that they’re involved in.
So while I do have some leads that might be this yet unidentified PRMT, I am currently focusing more on exploring the different pathways. We believe that the targets of PRMTs, and PRMTs themselves (including this yet unidentified enzyme), might be playing a role in the autophagy pathway.
JK: Which is aging?
JB: It can be related to aging, yes. And stress as well. It’s basically just a method for the cells to recycle material. The cell can sort of cannibalize some of its interior parts and spit out new building blocks. The world of autophagy seems to be exploding in research right now. We are really shocked with what we are seeing, which suggests that these methylarginine containing proteins are involved in the autophagy pathway as well.
JK: This whole discovery process sounds exciting. How do you feel about it all?
JB: Yes, that’s why I like it. It’s fun to step back and think about this discovery process in broader terms. I am contributing to our knowledge base in the world. It’s a teeny tiny amount but that is what is exciting for me. It’s sort of like solving a puzzle. And yes sometimes it’s a puzzle where you are beating your head against the wall for weeks on end, but it’s still a puzzle.
JK: What would you like to do after you graduate?
JB: Ideally I’d like to stay in academia as I have a teaching background and a passion for teaching and giving presentations as well as research.
I’ve been involved with the UBC Centre for Teaching Learning and Technology for a while now and I was actually just hired as a lead facilitator there.
JB: Thank you. I’m trying to be purposeful with my extracurriculars to either further my interest in education or interest in science. I think I’m getting there.
JK: Wrapping it up, what advice would you share with a prospective graduate student?
JB: I have two pieces of advice. First, find a supervisor that you connect with. That can be really difficult to do. But the nature of a graduate program is that you’re working closely with that individual and you want to make sure you have the same goals and can communicate well.
Secondly, get involved. For the first couple of months here I wasn’t involved in anything as I was really shy. I’d just moved across the country. It was kind of terrifying. And the community here seemed pretty tight knit. But then when I got involved with AAPS and with PharGS it just totally changed my graduate student experience.
Graduate Student Conversations is an ongoing interview series designed to highlight our exceptional PhD and MSc candidates and their work, achievements, and experiences at UBC Pharm Sci.