Trainee Q&A: Katie Parkins, PhD Candidate

Katie Parkins, PhD Candidate, is studying the mechanisms that influence cancer metastasis. She is completing her doctoral work with the Department of Medical Biophysics and is co-supervised by Robarts scientists Paula Foster, PhD, and John Ronald, PhD.

In this Q&A, she discusses her motivation in pursuing cancer research, the research environment at Robarts, and her experience working with patients and families at SickKids.

What does your research focus on? What current research project(s) are you working on?

My research involves the use of molecular imaging technologies to study the mechanisms that influence cancer metastasis. Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells from an original tumour to other parts of the body. However, the mechanisms that control cancer metastasis are poorly understood.

One mechanism of interest is an existing tumour mass or the original tumour controlling (either through inhibiting or stimulating) the growth of secondary tumours. The application of our novel cellular and molecular imaging tools allows us to non-invasively and longitudinally visualize metastatic progression to study these effects in vivo.

I’m currently studying these effects in two different models of breast cancer metastasis. In our immune deficient model, we’ve found the original breast tumour inhibits the growth of secondary tumours; whereas in our immune competent model, we’ve found the original breast tumour actually enhances secondary tumour growth. This suggests the immune system may play a vital role in whether inhibition or stimulation occurs.

What is the potential impact of your research?

Cancer cell dormancy and recurrence are important clinical problems for cancer patients and their physicians as secondary metastases can develop many years after successful removal of the original tumour and adjuvant therapy. We are hopeful that this research will produce important information about what influences secondary tumour growth and possibly advance therapeutic development for metastatic cancer patients.

What motivates you in pursuing this type of research?

I get a lot of my motivation from presenting my work. I get excited when others show enthusiasm for what I’m working on in the lab. I was recently at the Canadian Cancer Research Conference in Vancouver, where I not only had the opportunity to discuss my latest findings with other cancer researchers, but also to meet metastatic breast cancer patients that are part of the Canadian Patient Involvement program.

Seeing the patients’ interest in my work is very encouraging. It gives me inspiration and passion to go further and overcome challenges every researcher faces in their work. Most recently, I have been accepted to present my work at the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine meeting in Paris this June.

What is your education and research background?

I completed my undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Guelph. In my third year, I had the opportunity to take a neuroimaging course which introduced me to the basics of MRI and other molecular imaging applications in disease. I was also fortunate to have many unique research experiences throughout my undergraduate degree that allowed me to explore the many facets of research and discover where my passion lies.

The most influential position I held was as a clinical research assistant at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. My role involved screening patients admitted through the Emergency Room (ER) to determine eligibility for active clinical trials. This role required a large amount of patient/family interaction, as well as communication and contribution to both health care and clinical research teams.

Working in the ER allowed me to fully comprehend both the impact of medical imaging and the role it plays in detection, diagnosis/prognosis, and treatment of disease; as well as the ongoing need for novel innovative imaging technologies.

What appealed to you about training at Robarts?

Robarts, as well as London more broadly, has a collaborative team approach to research, which I find to be a significant benefit as a trainee.  There’s definitely no shortage of excitement over new ideas nor is there a lack of people in line willing to take part in a new project.

Some labs are focused on studying the biology of a disease, while others are focused on technology development, image analysis, cell engineering etc. I love that my work encompasses all of these. In this sense, Robarts has a great research environment. Everyone is working together, which I find exciting. And there are also unique technologies that other universities – not only in Ontario, but in North America – do not have access to.

Describe your experience at Robarts and working in the Foster and Ronald labs.

I feel as though I won the graduate student lottery. Being part of not one, but two amazing labs has had a huge impact on my research experience. We are more like an oversized family.

We spend a lot of time discussing science over coffee, or writing about science over drinks. The difference comes from all of the things we do together outside of science. Whether it’s having a ‘lab meeting’ around the pool or attending our annual Christmas party, our cellular and molecular imaging group at Robarts is very tight knit.