By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93
Andrea Barker has long benefited from the mentorship of women.
"There are two women who have had a profound influence on who I have become," she said. “My grandmother and Dr. Kim Hellmans, my mentor and a professor at Carleton University."
So when it came time to pursue her master's degree, Barker jumped at the opportunity to have a female supervisor and mentor – something she says is a rarity - and met with Grace Parraga, PhD, a Professor in Medical Biophysics and Scientist at Robarts Research Institute.
Working in the Parraga Lab at Robarts, however, meant shifting from a known area of research in neuroscience to medical biophysics. But Barker welcomed the opportunity to do something different.
Upon meeting Barker, Parraga was immediately struck by her enthusiasm for science and research. And although she had a background in neuroscience, Parraga was so impressed with her accomplishments, she knew that the transition to medical biophysics would be successful.
"I was convinced by Andrea's commitment as a researcher during her undergraduate years. She had ambitious research projects that resulted in co-authored manuscripts and she was a well-rounded student combining varsity and community sports with high academic and research achievements,” Parraga explained. “This, along with the fact that she sought out a graduate school position so early, cemented my impression that she is not only talented and ambitious but she can operationalize plans effectively."
Many Londoners will recognize Barker as the 2017 YMCA Young Woman of Excellence recipient. The youngest woman to ever receive the award, Barker was recognized for her resilience, academic and athletic achievement, and her community contributions.
"It's the biggest honour I've ever received," she said. "It was amazing to stand alongside and spend time with the other award recipients – all of whom are such outstanding women.”
When she received the award, Barker was in her third year in the Neuroscience and Mental Health program at Carleton. She was also spending her summers conducting concussion research with Kevin Shoemaker, PhD, in Western's Faculty of Health Sciences.
Passionate about sports – Barker played and coached ringette and having a personal experience with concussion, she was intrigued by Shoemaker's concussion research. Her experience in his lab solidified her love for research and she knew that a master’s degree was the next step in her academic career.
A few months in and Barker feels confident that she made the right choice and is soaking up the research culture at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.
Barker is working with a team of artificial intelligence and lung imaging experts at Harvard School of Medicine and is developing new ways to understand the role of pulmonary and bronchial vasculature in patients with bronchiectasis – a disease for which there is no cure and results from an inability of the lung to clear infection.
According to Parraga, the young trainee has made enormous progress on the project identifying data to analyze and is now developing the computational tools she needs to test her hypotheses.
Meanwhile, she has been honoured with another significant award. Barker recently received the Ilan Levy Post-Graduate Scholarship through the Children's Aid Foundation of Canada for the 2018/2019 school year. Humbled by the award, she was grateful to have the opportunity to meet Mr. Levy's wife so she could thank her personally.
"I'm so grateful for her support and the support from the Children's Aid Foundation. It means so much to me and it really keeps me grounded," she said.
While Barker’s research focus has changed, she remains passionate about sports and runs regularly, as well as coaches with the London Ringette Association.
"I'm grateful to be in the program at Western and involved with Schulich Medicine & Dentistry," she said. "There's so much opportunity here and so much to learn; I'm still figuring things out, and am really looking forward to continuing on in research."
And remembering the advice of her grandmother, Barker continues to give 100 per cent in everything she does.