by Meredith Dault
February 26, 2011
For PhD candidates Jess Cockburn and Vikki Ho, the reasons for taking an interdisciplinary approach to research are clear. “Aside from the innate fact that this is where all research is going, I think everyone is starting to realize that we can learn a lot more if we work together in a group setting,” explains Cockburn. “I think we’re more efficient and resourceful working as a team,” adds Ho.
Both Ho and Cockburn are part of the the Queen’s University Terry Fox Foundation Traning Program in Transdisciplinary Cancer Research in Canada, housed within the university’s Cancer Research Institute. The program gives graduate students and post-doctoral fellows a chance to work with researchers in different disciplines within cancer research. Cockburn explains that while the program is open to anyone doing cancer research, “you have to demonstrate that your research is truly transdisciplinary.”
Though they work in different areas -- Ho works in Community Health and Epidemiology, while Cockburn’s focus is in Pathology and Molecular Medicine -- the program has enabled them to get to know one another through weekly meetings and joint seminars. “The program gives you an opportunity to network with other students,” says Cockburn, “and in a way, you are forced to step back and say ‘ok, there’s a bigger world out there’ when you’re thinking about your research. And you get perspective from the other students’ backgrounds and disciplines.” “I think the program encourages you to step outside your comfort zone and provides you with an audience or a context to explain what research you’re doing and what your findings mean,” says Ho. “And when I have a general idea of where I want to expand on my research, through the program I have access to a pool of experts, and I can say ‘I’m thinking of doing this - what do you think? It’s a really great resource for me.” The program also allows students to work with faculty at other universities.
Both Ho and Cockburn did their undergraduate degrees at Queen’s before proceeding to specialized cancer research. Ho started in the Life Sciences program before moving into Community Health and Epidemiology -- the latter, essentially the study of health and disease patterns in human populations. “I’m interested in diet,” explains Ho, who has co-supervisors in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology [Dr. W.D. King] and Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology [Dr. T.E. Massey],“particularly in meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk.” Her research is truly transdisciplinary because it integrates tools obtained in molecular biology into epidemiologic methods. Traditionally, to study meat consumption and cancer risk, a questionnaire would attempt to capture your dietary habits and try to relate your dietary habits to the risk of developing cancer. “In my field, Molecular Epidemiology, we take that one step further and try to isolate what it is about meat that is cancerous.” Ho specifically investigates the role of meat-derived carcinogens in the development of colorectal cancer. “Recent advances in molecular biology have now enabled researchers to measure these carcinogens in human blood and tissues. Using these blood and tissue measures, we can now have a more accurate picture of your long-term dietary exposure to meat-derived carcinogens and relate that exposure to the risk of developing cancer.” “It is an elegant and sophisticated approach to revisiting the meat-cancer relationship again, and we couldn’t do it without a transdisciplinary team.”
Cockburn says she always liked genetics and the “more molecular side of biology,” but says she was drawn to cancer research after having family and friends diagnosed with the disease. Her current research project is looking at a particular protein that is important in the development of thyroid cancer. Cockburn explains that while most of the projects in her lab are not transdisciplinary, she wanted to pursue research that would help her build a broad expertise. ”I wanted to be exposed to a wider variety of techniques and disciplines that would be transferable to different fields,” she says.
Ho, who is in her third year of study, hopes to extend her research into an eventual post-doc. “I definitely want to continue in transdisciplinary research,” she says. “In a way, it has spoiled me for more traditional approaches to research,” she adds with a laugh, “because I have to make sure I go somewhere that takes full advantage of my transdisciplinary background.” Cockburn, who is in the final year of her PhD study says she is thinking about working in a clinical research setting, whether that’s a post-doc, or working for a pharmaceutical company. “I want to take the basic science skills I learned in the lab and apply them to a larger field,” she explains.
Cockburn feels the transdisciplinary approach is especially important in the worlds of industry and business. “It’s about being able to express ourselves to people from different backgrounds, from talking to patients, to talking to scientists. It’s about learning to bridge that gap.”