School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Searching for links between hemostasis and innate immunity

Alison Michels

Ph.D candidate, Pathology & Molecular Medicine

Alison Michels

Ph.D. candidate Alison Michels

by Natalia Mukhina, August 2015

MD/PhD student Alison Michels studies the von Willebrand factor (VWF), which is a glycoprotein involved in platelet adhesion and functions as a carrier protein for the coagulation factor VIII. It received such an "aristocratic" name from the Finnish physician and researcher Erik Adolf von Willebrand, who focused on properties of blood and its coagulation. An imbalance in VWF is associated with abnormal hemostasis that can manifest in bleeding and thrombotic cardiovascular disease.

"Many studies have contributed to the importance of von Willebrand factor," Michels explains, "and at the same time, there is a relatively new line of scientific thought, which deals with the concept of immunothrombosis." Michels is about to start her 3rd grad year at the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and is intent on investigating the role of VWF in immunothrombosis.

Michels' whole educational and research career has been part and parcel to do with Queen's. She believes that she has lucked into the best of all possible places for her education and research. How do students find their way into research? Let's look at Michels' case.

Having been passionate about chemistry and biology in high school, Michels entered Queen's and began doing her undergraduate studies with a specialization in life sciences. "After my first year at the University, I started getting more interested in biological sciences like anatomy and physiology," she recalls, "and I realized, distinctly, that Queen's encourages students to develop a multi-dimensional way of thinking."

Alison Michels presenting at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) 56th Annual Meeting and Exposition (2014), San Francisco, USA.

Alison Michels presenting at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) 56th Annual Meeting and Exposition (2014), San Francisco, USA.

Luck also had it that Michels came across the works of Queen's professor David Lillicrap, which were of interest to the young undergrad student. "I was impressed with Dr. Lillicrap's research in hemostatic systems, including the mechanisms regulating production of VWF. I met with Dr. Lillicrap, and we decided that I would do my fourth-year thesis project under his supervision. I really enjoyed doing that project, and it is why I am involved in research today."

Now Michels is pursuing her favourite subject at the PhD level. "What if VWF is a novel mediator of immunothrombosis? In this case, inflammation can influence VWF's prothrombotic function. As a result, VWF can modulate immune processes. It is a hypothesis that I would like to research." Currently Michels is focusing on research into VWF pathophysiology using in vitro and murine in vivo models of obesity, which is a documented chronic, low-grade inflammatory state. "Obesity is a global epidemic," Michels recognizes, "and obese individuals are at a higher risk for thrombotic disorders including heart attacks and strokes."

Seeking ways to prevent such threatening complications, Michels is studying how a high-fat diet can influence VWF, using murine models with diet-induced obesity. In those models, there is an increase in VWF levels, in parallel with other markers of inflammation. Michels is going to investigate the changes to VWF functions in thrombosis and adipose-tissue inflammation, and the next step will be to determine the endothelial cell characteristics of VWF regulation in a cohort of obese patients.

Involved in such intellectual and high-tech-oriented research, Michels does not look like an armchair scientist. She dreams of practicing as a clinician scientist. "I would like to spend some of my time seeing patients. I spend a lot of time in clinics as a volunteer, and I serve as a standardized patient acting as a mediator between physicians, nurses, and medical students." For Michels, it is highly important to collaborate with medical professionals and real patients, and not become isolated in the ivory town of Academia.

Asked about the most challenging part of her research, Michels responds with confidence: "Dealing with failure! Probably 90% of the experiments fail, and only 10% are successful." It might be very frustrating, especially in the beginning of one's scientific practice, but researchers and students should adapt to this. "At one point, you must stop getting hung up on failures." Overcoming inevitable failures is a good challenge, underlines Michels, because "it makes you think about your research further and validate what you are doing."

Having come from a small community outside Cornwall ("My town has a population of only 200," she laughs), Michels enjoys all the opportunities that Kingston provides for its inhabitants. Sports, volunteering, participation in Queen's student events, etc. - all these activities characterize her as a very open-minded person. She also knows a big secret on how to keep up with the heaps of duties, which are common for grad students, and find time for recreation. "I am a morning person," Alison smiles, "and getting up early is where I can find some extra time."

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