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Post-Doctoral Training

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Synergy between mitochondrial biology and pathology:

Post-doctoral Fellow Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary

January 2016

by Adenike Ogunrinde

Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary

Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary

Dr. Kimberly Dunham-Snary is undoubtedly one of the most vibrant and enthusiastic researchers I have had the pleasure of speaking with. Kimberly is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow in Dr. Stephen Archer’s lab in the Department of Medicine here at Queen’s. Dr. Archer’s lab conducts a variety of molecular studies examining mechanisms of oxygen sensing in the pulmonary vasculature, as well as studies investigating mitochondrial dynamics in numerous pathologies including pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), patent ductus arteriosus, and cancer. PAH is an abnormally high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which requires the right side of the heart to pump more vigorously to ensure adequate blood flow through the lungs. Symptoms of PAH begin with shortness of breath and ultimately culminate in the failure of the right portion of the heart. As I learned from speaking with Kimberly, a great deal of the mechanisms being examined in cancer share the same hallmarks with PAH (e.g. excessive cell growth and decreased cell death), which is why they are studied in parallel in the Archer lab. Given that our lungs sense changes in oxygen (O2), and that mitochondria are the putative O2 sensors in the lungs, Kimberly focuses her research on refining the molecular identity of the mitochondrial oxygen sensor within the pulmonary vasculature.

Dipping her toes into academic research roughly 10 years ago, Kimberly unknowingly began honing in on her current field of expertise – mitochondrial biology in pathology. A research project during her undergraduate studies at Lakehead University involved looking for signs of ancient strains of diseases in mummified tissue samples, a project I must admit I am envious of. This research sparked her interest in ‘low-copy number DNA’-focused research, promoting her to join the inaugural graduate class in Forensic Science at The Pennsylvania State University for her Master’s degree. This is where her research took more of an applied turn. The goal of her Master’s research was to enhance crime scene visualisation of skin cells in latent fingerprints, and she did so by staining fingerprints and subsequently analysing low-copy number DNA from them to correlate colour intensity with DNA content. Following her Master’s degree, she accepted a position as a laboratory technician at UOIT, where she realized she had passion for academic teaching. Combining her research interests and new found enthusiasm in academia, Kimberly took on doctoral research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which set the tone for the next stage of her academic career. Her PhD thesis involved investigating the influence of mitochondrial genetics in cardiovascular and metabolic disease susceptibility. As Kimberly informed me, there is a lot of synergy between mitochondrial biology (genetics, dynamics, function) and pathology, more than is credited sometimes, which is in part why she is so interested in this field.

            Now, a year into her Post-doctoral work, Kimberly says that she has truly grown as a scientific researcher. In addition to obvious growth in technical knowledge, Kimberly feels she has improved in her scientific writing, independence in troubleshooting, and problem solving. Additionally, “being a post-doc is always about being three steps ahead and having the next new idea”, Kimberly says (quoting her mentor Dr. Archer) and “when you start having these considerations, you are ready”. Recently, Kimberly authored a Perspectives article in the highly-regarded journal ‘Science’, which is an astounding accomplishment for any scientific researcher. The article is titled “Mitochondrial-nuclear DNA mismatch matters” and discusses how the intergenomic differences between nuclear and mitochondrial genomes may cause differences in gene expression and cellular function. Kimberly hopes this will be the beginning to advancing knowledge, and improving early interventional strategies, therapies, and prognoses of disease.

 To conclude, Kimberly has some advice for those looking for a post-doctoral fellowship. “Be selective, but don’t hold out for absolute perfection - be flexible but don’t settle”.  For finding a good fit, Kimberly advises either staying in your field and moving to a lab where you will gain many new techniques, or going to a new field/research focus where you can apply your technical knowledge in a new context.

Long term, Kimberly would like to secure a position as a research professor at an academic institution, where she wants to develop her own research focus. After meeting with Kimberly I have no doubt she will be successful in achieving these goals.