School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Vanier Scholar - Catherine Normandeau

by Sharday Mosurinjohn
November 2015

Catherine Normandeau

Vanier Scholar - Catherine Normandeau

One of the reasons why Catherine Normandeau’s work is so well described by the trio of values held up by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships – academic excellence, research potential, and leadership – is that the projects she takes on are like pieces in a puzzle that scientists around the world are excited about solving. A researcher of the complex relationship between stress and anxiety, Normandeau is matching her piece – expertise in electrophysiology – with the expertise of Dr. José Miguel Pêgo’s lab in Portugal, which specializes in anxiety behaviour, and Dr. Zoe McElligott’s lab in North Carolina, which is pioneering techniques from the world of genetics. Most importantly, her initiative is harnessed not just to curiosity and analytic ability, but also to a vision of how these puzzle pieces form a bigger picture.

As a Life Sciences undergraduate at Queen’s, Normandeau chose a research specialization in neuroscience. By third year, with mandatory foundations courses behind her, the program became “a bit more of a playground,” whose ropes led her to pursue a Master’s at Queen’s Centre for Neuroscience Studies (CNS). As a fourth-year thesis student in Dr. Linda Mclean’s rehabilitation lab, her investigations were at the scale of the human body, but for graduate studies, she began to focus down on the cellular and molecular level.

After one year of her MSc, Normandeau had fallen in love with researching the unseen. She began to think she would do a PhD. At the same time, she was working as a Don in residence at Waldron Tower (the lakeview building she had once lived in as an undergrad) and deepening her connection to Queen’s.  She decided to remain, in order to do a “mini master’s” with Dr. Eric Dumont. She jokes that this accelerated program, which rolls directly into doctoral studies, was effectively like a promise ring that betrothed her to a Queen’s PhD.

The Dumont lab was an evolving one that had been focusing on cellular mechanisms underlying drug addiction when Normandeau started there, and has since branched out along the research interests of its students to study the application of these cellular mechanisms in compulsive behaviours more broadly. “The hope is to get more of an accurate picture of the interactions between these behaviours because they aren’t always mutually exclusive. We’re curious about how different mechanisms are involved.”

Specifically, Normandeau is “identifying the cellular changes responsible for the transition from adaptive to maladaptive anxiety.” She has focused on a molecule called neurotensin, a peptide found in the brain. (Like proteins, peptides are chains of amino acids, but shorter). “Neurotensin has been previously investigated as a possible treatment for schizophrenia,” she explains, “but its role in anxiety remains unclear.” When Normandeau has blocked neurotensin in rat brains pharmacologically (that is, introducing a drug that competes for the same receptor that recognizes neurotensin), she has observed a “significant reduction in pathological anxiety.” Since anxiety and depression so often occur together – “their co-morbidity is 50%” - this research is also exploring whether neurotensin might be involved in depression.

With public attention to mental health steadily growing, Normandeau’s research couldn’t be more timely. It’s impossible not to be touched by the topic, as she puts it, because we manage our minds daily just as we do our bodies. Reflecting on her experiences being there for students as a Don, she acknowledges that a stigma is still alive, but with initiatives such as the Jack Project, she’s “optimistic for humanity.” At Queen’s, Normandeau says the university’s culture is one where “many students want to improve their community; it really inspires me.”

She especially appreciates the way “that people find interest outside the class room.” Her own commitment to the culture of Queen’s runs deep indeed. In the past, Normandeau was part of the student-run Canadian Undergraduate Conference on Health Care, coordinating sponsorship for the annual event in her fourth year. She was also part of the AMS Campus Activities Commission, where she co-chaired the annual charity ball. Currently, she is part of a neuroscience outreach initiative through the CNS. There, she runs a program called “brain badge” for scouts and brownies. Neuroscience can be made as basic as the age group calls for, says Normandeau, and it gets kids excited.

Looking to the future, Normandeau says, “I really like learning about the brain and I’m passionate about mental health and trying to improve the treatments for mental illness.” The Vanier will fund three more years of doctoral study, after which Normandeau could undoubtedly go just about anywhere. A “divided soul” whose family culture is French Canadian but grew up in Oakville thanks to parents who valued bilingualism, Normandeau has never been daunted by cultural or linguistic frontiers.

It’s fortunate that the energies of someone like Normandeau should be dedicated to solving the puzzle of stress and anxiety. “We’re so far from understanding the brain,” she remarks. “Even though we’ve done revolutionary things, it’s a young science. Our tools are new.” If the brain used to be a black box, the puzzle is a better metaphor today, because as Normandeau says, “every piece counts.”