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Productive Summer 

Queen's Post-Doc Fellow Conducting Research at Harvard 

July 16, 2015

by Dalia Thamin

Dr. Michelle North in the lab

Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Michelle North: Department of Biomedical & Molecular Sciences.

Research Focus: Gene-Environment Interactions in Allergic Disease.

Supervisor: Dr. Anne K. Ellis

Dr. Michelle North, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Queen’s, is having a busy summer away from Kingston. She’s spending her days at a one of a kind lab, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with funding support provided by the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network (AllerGen). Dr. North is a visiting fellow at Harvard for the summer with Dr. Andrea Baccarelli. Dr. North has been conducting further testing and data analysis there on samples she collected at Queen’s as part of her research on the development of allergies in young children.

That’s not all that Dr. North has been up to this summer. She also made a quick trip back to Kingston to take part in Queen’s “Three Minute Thesis” (3MT) Competition.  It was the first time that post-doctoral fellows were allowed to compete.  Dr. North had three minutes to present her research to a panel of judges who weren’t specialized in her field. The title of her presentation was “Do Allergies develop in the womb?”

When I skyped Dr. North in Boston, I asked her for another challenge: to explain to our readers from all walks of life what her research is about by answering three questions: What are you doing? How are you doing it? And what are the key findings of your research?

 Dr. North is part of a research team at Queen’s working on investigating what role prenatal and early life environmental factors play in the development of allergies and asthma in children.  “So the theory is that allergies could develop in the womb and that things that mothers are exposed to while pregnant might affect whether or not the child gets allergies,” says Dr. North.

 Dr. North says, the early years of childhood are also critical when it comes to the development of the immune system.  “The first year or two of life are very important for…conditioning your immune system to work properly and not over react to allergens that are not really harmful,” she says. “We are looking at air pollution and environmental chemicals and also whether or not the mother has allergies… currently maternal allergy is the best predictor we have of allergic risk in the child, but the epigenetic biomarkers we are working on might offer something better,” Dr. North adds.

The study called “The Kingston Allergy Birth Cohort” included collecting umbilical cord blood samples from 400 babies born at Kingston General Hospital. “We have been taking samples of the umbilical cord blood, since it is the earliest biological sample we can get from a child,” says Dr. North. Then the team has been following up with the kids to find out which ones develop allergies. “We are looking for something like a test that you may be able to do at birth to find if your child is going to get allergies or not,” says Dr. North. She adds that the research team are also trying to identify factors that can help prevent allergies.

The key findings of the research includes: “breast feeding prevents asthma inhaler prescriptions,” says Dr. North. She adds that having an older sibling at the home also decreases the chances of testing positive for allergies.  

Visiting fellow at HarvardDr. Michelle North standing in front of a Harvard building

Dr. North wanted to do further testing on the study samples, to look at the children’s mitochondrial DNA, but that kind of special testing was only available at a lab at Harvard. “They (Harvard) were doing very novel work in environmental health that no one else is doing right now and I wanted to apply that to the birth cohort,” says Dr. North.  She’s been finding her research experience at Harvard very rewarding. “It’s fantastic, it exceeded all my expectations,” says Dr. North.

Dr. North was able to become a visiting fellow at Harvard thanks to a grant offered by AllerGen NCE. AllerGen is one of the Canadian National Centres of Excellence. The award is called the “International Research Visit Program”. “The award supports AllerGen trainees to work with international investigators to gain unique training opportunities that are not available in Canada,” explains Dr. North.

Dr. North points out that she didn’t get the funding from AllerGen when she applied last year. However, she gave it another shot this year again and got it. Dr. North’s tip for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows: “Don’t give up if you really want something.”  She also stresses the importance of starting to plan early to apply for possible opportunities out there. “I think once you have an idea of what you want to do and where you want to go, try to identify your opportunities as early as you can,” says Dr. North.

Plans for the rest of the summer

Dr. North has been applying for faculty positions this summer. She says taking part in Queen’s 3MT competition has been helping her prepare for job interviews. “It definitely gave me some ideas on how to introduce my research as something that is exciting and new and how to explain it to people that don’t work in that particular area, so it was very useful,” says Dr. North.

Despite her busy academic life this summer Dr. North tries to find time to discover Boston with her 3 year-old daughter. “It’s good to have a bit of down time,” says Dr. North.

Michelle North's 3 year old daughter