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Kristiina Aasa & Nicole Ventura

Ph.D candidates, Anatomy & Cell Biology, DBMS

Kristiina & Nicole

(L-R) Kristiina and Nicole

Reflecting on Queen's Anatomy Program

by Filza Naveed, July 2014

A passion for teaching, academia and understanding the human body is what Nicole Ventura and Kristiina Aasa have in common.

It’s that same love for anatomy that made them apply to Queen’s University’s Anatomy and Cell Biology Program, now a part of the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences (DBMS). Both opted to pursue a Masters and stayed on for a PhD.

Now in their third and fourth years respectively, the two cannot imagine doing anything else and are happy with their chosen paths.

“We both came from the same Master’s program which is pattern two where you have a thesis research project and there’s a lot of emphasis on teaching and giving lectures. Because the teaching aspect of the program appealed to me, I decided to stay on and teach anatomy,” says Ventura.

For Aasa, it was the different topics that she got to study under the program which influenced her decision to continue on with the PhD.  She found people she was interested in working with and fell in love with her research on cardiovascular systems.

“My research (supervised by Dr Terence Ozolinš) looks at the cardiovascular system during pregnancy. I look at pregnancy complications, gestational diabetes and exposure to chemicals during pregnancy. I seek to understand how that affects the mothers,” says Aasa.

Ventura’s research (primary supervisor Dr Stephen Pang and co-supervisor Dr Albert Jin), also focuses on pregnant mothers and her major project involves looking at maternal uterine environments. She looks at whether a mother’s high blood pressure during pregnancy can impact her offspring to be susceptible to stroke in their adult life.

Always passionate about the health sciences since their high school years, both Ventura and Aasa planned on going to medical school but ended up looking at graduate programs in anatomy.

“I’ve always been passionate about science. Anatomy was my favourite topic during my undergraduate years. Initially, I was set on going to medical school. When I started doing some teaching during my third year at the University of Guelph, I realized that I really loved working with students and would like to teach. Hence, I ended up coming to Queen’s,” says Ventura.

For Aasa, after taking anatomy and physiology in her second year during her undergraduate degree at McMasters University, it seemed inevitable that pursuing anatomy solely was what she wanted to do rather than going to medical school.

After a gruelling application process which involved reference letters, meeting with professors and interviews, Ventura and Aasa both got into the Master’s program at Queen’s.

“I was a bit nervous about getting in. The program is competitive and takes around 12 students on average. What makes it tougher is that only Queen’s and Western offer a program like this in Canada. Queen’s was my first choice and I was thrilled to get in,” Ventura exclaims.

Aasa relishes the small class sizes at the graduate level that the program offers as well as the professors who are always willing to help out with projects.

She also emphasizes that although many students do stay on to pursue their PhD in anatomy, many also find jobs in the industry, a path that she hopes to follow when she’s done with her PhD.

Both girls are also Teaching Assistants aside from working as Research Assistants in the lab. They also work on creating social events as the graduate representatives for the program.

“We believe in maintaining a healthy balance between work and play. We play volleyball and go to the Grad Club for drinks. I also volunteer at the Canadian Cancer Society. All of this adds to the quality of life and enhances your graduate school experience,” says Aasa.

So what’s their advice to other students who are seeking to get into the PhD program?

 “I would strongly advise students to take time out and meet the professor they want to work with in person. Most professors don’t like getting a generic email. But coming to their door and telling them exactly why you’re interested in working with them goes a long way,” says Ventura.

Reflecting on their time here at Queen’s, both girls are happy to have chosen Kingston as their home and have brought houses here as well.

“I absolutely love how the Queen’s campus is so close to the water. I can just look outside my lab window and glance at the scenic beauty around me. I’m from a small town so Kingston is pretty upscale for me,” Ventura says.

Even though Aasa finds Kingston to be small and quiet compared to her hometown, Hamilton, she definitely cherishes the quiet time.

“In the end, I can’t stress enough how important it is to socialize and hang out and make the most of your time here. A lot of science students get a bad reputation about being anti-social. But going out, playing sports and making friends makes all the difference,” says Aasa with a smile.

The two look forward to making waves in the science world and are excited about what the future holds for them. 

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