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Matt Ratsep

Ph.D candidate, Pharmacology & Toxicology (DBMS)

Matt Ratsep with Dr Anne Croy

Matt Ratsep with his supervisor Dr Anne Croy at the SSR meeting in GrandRapids

Creating Changes through Innovative Scientific Research

by Filza Naveed, August 2014

There is never a straight path for those delving into PhD research. You might start off with a certain idea or project in mind but end up with something quite different.

That’s exactly what happened with Matthew Rätsep, a third year PhD candidate in the Pharmacology and Toxicology program, now part of the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences (DBMS) at Queen’s University.

“My research is related to placental growth factor. Basically, there’s a protein that is produced by the placenta which is thought to regulate growth and blood vessel formation. My research project’s goal was to investigate as to what happens when you knock that factor out of a mouse and genetically delete it. The aim was to discover what happens to women during pregnancy,” says Rätsep.

He recalls the first year of his PhD as being a particularly grueling and difficult year wherein his experiments were not giving him the results he was striving to achieve. He started off experiments by measuring the blood pressure in mice using radio telemetry but the mice kept suffering from stroke and required euthanasia. Consequently, he was unable to measure their blood pressure. “That was a major part of my thesis and it was very frustrating to discover that I wasn’t getting the data that I needed,” he says.

“What I learned from that frustrating experience was that in any scientific field, you’re going to be doing experiments that will not necessarily yield results that you’re looking for. You will probably have to adopt a different approach and that’s exactly what happened with my research,” he says.

Rätsep eventually discovered that his mice kept dying because they had defective blood vessels in the brain. The radio transmitters that he was using on the mice were actually pointing towards the fact that these mice have defective blood vessels and that’s what ultimately became his research.

“It started off as a question about pregnancy and now it’s gone on in a completely different direction. I would advise PhD students to never feel discouraged if their experiments initially don’t seem to be working. Try to find a supervisor who’s understanding. And if the experiment isn’t working, be creative in terms of finding a way around the problem. Try to follow what the data is telling you,” he says.

Growing up north of Toronto near Lake Simcoe, Rätsep was always passionate about science and math and originally planned to go to medical school. Instead, after pursuing an undergraduate degree in Health Sciences and a Master’s in Applied Health Sciences from Brock University, he opted to pursue a PhD at Queen’s University.

“I chose to come to Queen’s because it was bigger in size, was more research intensive and offered great funding. I also thought that coming from a small city such as St. Catharines, where Brock University is located, Kingston wouldn’t be such a drastic change and would offer me a smooth transition from one small city to another. There’s also a great collaborative environment here at Queen’s which is definitely a bonus,” he says.

And he has indeed accomplished a lot during his time here.

Last summer, Rätsep spent six months in Brazil on exchange. He studied with Dr. Aureo Yamada at the University of Campinas and learned fascinating new techniques from the Professor there which assisted him with his thesis research.

“Campinas is about an hour and a half away from Sao Paulo and is fairly large. It was a great experience to study at this university and to learn Portuguese, which was quite a challenge for my wife and I, who accompanied me there as well. Dr. Yamada also proved to be a fantastic mentor,” says Rätsep.

Exploring new places is not Rätsep’s only accomplishment. Just recently, he was awarded first place in the Trainee Research Platform Presentation competition at the 47th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction held in Grand Rapids, Michigan from July 19-23, 2014.

“This conference is very comprehensive and covers all facets of reproduction from human pregnancy to mice. Out of more than 500 abstracts submitted, the program picks the top six which are then presented at the conference during a special session,” says Rätsep.

Each of the six authors were then invited to present a 12 minute PowerPoint presentation as part of the Research Platform Competition and Rätsep was awarded first place for his spectacular presentation.

Out of the numerous abstracts that were submitted this year by approximately 800 delegates, sixteen participants were selected to receive the prestigious Lalor Foundation Travel Fellowship and Rätsep was also one of the lucky sixteen.

 “It’s a fairly competitive platform. Last year, I attended the same meeting in Montreal and I never imagined myself taking part in the competition let alone winning it. I was totally shocked when I found out I had won. It was an amazing experience,” he recalls.

Looking back at all his triumphs, Rätsep is very satisfied with the path that he chose for himself.

“I’m really happy with how things have turned out. If I were to go back and make decisions on what to do, I would definitely choose to do a PhD. I wouldn’t even consider anything else,” he says. 

Update (30 September): The International Federation of Placenta Associations (IFPA) annual meeting was held in Paris, France September 9-12, 2014. Of the 164 poster presented by new investigators, one by Matthew Rätsep, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Queen’s University, titled “The Role of Placental Growth Factor in Regulating Fetal Brain Vascular Development”, was selected as the best presentation based on scientific merit, interpretation, impact of the results and clarity of the presentation. As a result, Mr. Rätsep was presented with the Elsevier Trophoblast Research New Investigator Award, which includes an invitation to present a plenary lecture at next year’s IFPA meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Mr. Rätsep’s PhD program is co-supervised by Drs. Anne Croy and Michael Adams. Congratulations Matt!