Perspectives from the next generation of scientists

Four GlycoNet trainees discuss how glycomics research can change the face of healthcare

GlycoNet trainees (from left: Alena Pratasouskaya, Jennifer Crha, Hanna Ostapska, Ryan Sweeney) share their perspectives on the future of glycomics research.

By Ali Chou

As they gathered for the fourth annual Canadian Glycomics Symposium last May, I sat down with members of GlycoNet’s Trainee Association Executive Committee for a chat about the future of glycomics research. Meet Ryan, Jennifer, Hanna and Alena, four young researchers who hail from different labs across the country. They have two important things in common: their passion for science and their eagerness to engage in conversations about why science matters.

  • Ryan Sweeney is a post-doctoral researcher working in the Withers Lab at the University of British Columbia. Fascinated by the relationship between science and creativity, Sweeney studies carbohydrates structures and their interactions with biomolecules in the body.
  • Jennifer Crha is a Master’s student working in the Monteiro Lab at the University of Guelph. Prior to her life in the lab, Crha worked in R&D and quality assurance for projects in the agriculture, food sciences and the pharmaceutical industries.
  • Hanna Ostapska is a PhD candidate working in the Sheppard Lab at McGill University. As an outdoorsy person, Ostapska grew up with a fascination for microorganisms. She started looking more closely at the link between environmental and human health after learning more about antibiotic resistance. She is taking this issue using a holistic approach.
  • Alena Pratasouskaya is a Master’s student working in the Horsman Lab at Wilfrid Laurier University. A trained teacher and speech pathologist, Pratasouskaya was moved by her patients to pursue applied science and to work on research that can derive positive health impacts for patients.

Life in the lab: challenges and opportunities

Regardless of age or experience, most researchers would argue that it is challenging to find long-term and stable sources of funding for projects. Research takes time and most funding options will only cover the span of a few years. This creates pressure on researchers to constantly look for new avenues of financial support. Pratasouskaya explains she doesn’t want to continue to climb the academic ladder for this very reason. “I thought I would go for a PhD, but after seeing my professors spend a huge amount of time on grant applications, I decided that a Master’s degree is sufficient for me as a technician. I can allocate most of my time to performing benchwork.”

It can be hard to explain to people outside the scientific community why projects need to be funded over a long period of time. To an outsider, investing in research without a guarantee of a return on investment may seem like too much of a gamble. In our hyper-connected world, it is increasingly important to make science accessible to the public and to demystify how investments in research benefit all Canadians.

Sweeney points out that public appreciation of research, its benefits, and adequate financial support often go hand in hand. Researchers have a responsibility to educate, and advocate their own research. It is a reality that this group of researchers understands all too well.

“We scientists need to communicate more to the public about our research. We have to make sure people understand why we are doing research,” says Sweeney. “And most of the time, using ‘facts-listing’ is not going to win buy-ins. It’s about finding common values.”

All trainees nod in unison, agreeing that simply telling people “they don’t get it” will not help convince them that scientific research is beneficial to society at large.

Crha is developing a vaccine to fight diarrhea caused by a food-borne pathogen. Tackling the hot-button issue of vaccination publicly can be tricky for a young scientist. But the public scrutiny and polarized opinions about vaccination do not seem to scare Crha. She understands that she has to play a role in alleviating certain people’s fear of vaccines. “Through numerous encounters with people who are against vaccination, I realized that most of them held their beliefs not because they were ignorant, but because they were scared or misinformed,” she says.

In the age of social media, where information is widely available, it is necessary for scientists and researchers to take part in public conversations around science, health and research. They are in a unique position to raise awareness about the benefits of research, and to share relevant and accurate information with the public.

Multidisciplinary collaboration: a motor for scientific discovery

In 2017, Pratasouskaya collaborated on a project that aimed to combat antibiotic resistance in periodontal disease. It was critical to the project’s success to understand the composition of a bacterial secretion that forms dental plaque. Pratasouskaya struggled to progress on that front; she isolated the bacterial secretion, but she couldn’t analyze its composition in detail because she didn’t have the necessary equipment, a mass spectrometer, in her lab.

“Then I met Jennifer Crha at the Canadian Glycomics Symposium,” says Pratasouskaya. “I learned that she routinely used a mass spectrometer as part of her research project. Later that year, I traveled to her institute as a collaborator and spent several months in the lab where she worked. Learning mass spectrometry really helped me advance my project.”

Ostapska agrees that collaboration is key. She speaks openly about the risks of conducting research in silos,particularly when trying to tackle complex and layered issues like antibiotic resistance. “Microorganisms are evolving methods to escape antibiotics. We are in a race, and their capacity to evolve is interfering with our ability to treat common infections. To prevent antibiotics from becoming ineffective, we have to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines,” she says.

Ostapska’s current project focuses on developing antimicrobial agents to treat lung infections that cause complications with cystic fibrosis patients. As a microbiologist, she works with chemists who synthesize sugars and produce enzymes for her research. She doesn’t have the expertise to do their job, and they don’t have the expertise to do hers. The more they collaborate, the quicker they can move towards solutions to treat a disease affecting thousands of Canadians.

Glycomics research: a world of possibility

Our panel of young scientists all chose to pursue a career in the field for different reasons. However, they are all passionate voices for science and specifically for glycomics. Just a few decades ago, researchers realized that sugars cover every cell in our bodies and are intimately connected with health and diseases. As a result, glycomics research, a comprehensive and multidisciplinary field, is uniquely positioned to find treatments or help prevent diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to cancer and more. And applications of glycomics also extend beyond healthcare. 

“Glycomics can create more jobs,” says Ostapska. “It can be applied towards sustainable development. Take cellulose, a type of sugar, for example. Cellulose is biodegradable and can be used as an alternative to plastic. Another application—producing biofuel from cellulose—requires mass-produced enzymes to breakdown cellulose. These are all potential jobs related to glycomics research.”

Another area where glycomics is important is nutrition. A lot of common myths still need to be debunked.  “Popular beliefs assume that all carbohydrates are equal and that they are bad. For example, many know that fiber can facilitate weight loss, but they do not realize that fiber is actually a carbohydrate. Some fiber promotes digestion, while others slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, thereby controlling weight and reducing cravings,” says Sweeney.

It is hard to know where glycomics research is heading. The field is ever growing and its power seems limitless. As we conclude our chat, and our four scientists share their hope for the future of glycomics research, Ostapska brilliantly summarizes why these researchers and others like them get up every morning. “Many people think that science is only about scientists secluding themselves in the labs with machines, but that’s not it,” says Ostapska. “From the very beginning when we explore the world as toddlers, we learn through discovery. That’s what lab work is about. We learn the system, we discover how it works, we ask more questions, and we learn more. It’s the knowledge that we can just learn a little bit more every day, and that our learning might help people, that keeps us going.”

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