Genetic discovery

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By Emily Leighton, MA'13

A chance encounter in a Tim Horton’s line paved the way for Jacqueline Dron’s future in genetic research at Robarts Research Institute.

A third-year bachelor of science student at the time, Dron was visiting her uncle, a genetics researcher at the University of Toronto, to learn more about his work. A brief tour came with an unexpected introduction to Dr. Stephen Scherer, a renowned geneticist with positions at SickKids and U of T.

“We were grabbing coffee at Tim Horton’s and suddenly I was meeting a huge name in the genetics field,” she said. “Dr. Scherer asked me about my studies, and told me to look up Dr. Robert Hegele. At the time, I was new to genetics, so that was initially how I found out about the amazing research happening at Robarts.”

The advice had a significant impact on the aspiring scientist, and Dron started volunteering in Dr. Hegele’s lab.

After completing her fourth-year thesis in the lab, as well as a summer work placement, Dron decided to pursue her master’s degree.

The MSc candidate points to peer mentorship and camaraderie as a big factor in her decision to continue under Dr. Hegele’s supervision. “It’s such a welcoming lab environment, I know this is where I want to be at this stage in my career,” she said. “And I’m incredibly fortunate to have access to the technology and equipment I need to do what I’m passionate about.”

Dron’s current research focuses on high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. She is studying extreme levels of HDL cholesterol, both high and low, and trying to understand the genetic basis of these phenotypes.

“Many people know cholesterol is linked to diet and environment, but there is also a huge genetic component in determining an individual’s baseline HDL level,” she explained. “It’s not just one big mutation, but the accumulation of multiple variants or mutations.”

In trying to understand this genetic influence, the goal is to develop ways to model or predict what individual HDL levels should be.

With the ability to identify people who are at a higher genetic risk for extreme levels of HDL, clinicians may be able to develop preventative plans. “We can say ‘you’ve been dealt a bad genetic hand, you’ll need to adjust your lifestyle, exercise more, eat better’,” Dron explained.

The research could also potentially lead to drug targets using the information gained from learning about genetic variants that lead to extreme HDL cholesterol levels.

For Dron, the process of finding the hidden genetic players is immensely satisfying. “I like the challenge of trying to figure out these complex genetic interactions and how these genetic factors come together,” she said.

In recognition of this work, the young researcher recently received a Presentation Award at the Canadian Lipoprotein Conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland in September.

She is planning to continue her work under Dr. Hegele's supervision and transfer to the PhD program with the Department of Biochemistry.

In addition to her academic success, Dron also enjoys giving back. She volunteers with the Museum School London through the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, sharing the basics of genetic research with elementary school classes.

Dron fondly remembers a recent strawberry DNA extraction experiment with a Grade 7 class. “The students are enthusiastic and ask so many excellent questions,” she said with a smile. “It’s wonderful to have this chance to get them excited about science early on.”

This dedication to teaching and communicating science is something she plans to continue throughout her career. “I want to share my work not just with other scientists, but with the wider community,” she said. “I want to maintain community links to inform people and to show them how exciting genetics can be.”