Student Success

U of L computational chemistry students build international networks

Two University of Lethbridge doctoral students have built international connections early in their careers, thanks to Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplements (MSFSS) from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Katie Wilson (BSc ’13), who spent three months at the University of Porto in Portugal, and Stefan Lenz (BSc ’13), who spent three months at the University of Rhode Island, are being supervised by Dr. Stacey Wetmore, a professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. They are in the process of finishing the requirements for their PhDs in computational chemistry, a field that employs computers to help solve chemistry problems.

“It was amazing,” Wilson says of her time at the University of Porto. “I wanted to learn new techniques to model biological systems and Dr. Wetmore is connected to Dr. Maria João Ramos’ group in Porto, so I went there to learn the methods they are using. For any scientific advancement, you need that collaboration in order to go forward.”

Lenz went to the University of Rhode Island to work with Dr. Deyu Li, an experimental expert in the field of DNA repair. Lenz had the opportunity to learn experimental techniques used to study DNA repair.

“Computational chemistry can’t solve all of the problems and, by the same token, experiments can’t provide all of the insights we’d like either,” says Lenz. “It’s often a dual-headed approach that yields the best results, so establishing a consistent collaboration between a computational lab and an experimental lab can be extremely valuable.”

“An incredible part of a young researcher’s education is exposure to new environments and ways of thinking,” says Wetmore. “Nothing can replace the experience of being immersed in a collaboration between innovative researchers with vibrant and productive research programs. Katie and Stefan have enhanced their graduate education by securing funding from the MSFSS program in order to take advantage of this important opportunity.”

Wilson, who is from Canmore, and Lenz, who is from Coaldale, came to the U of L with very different goals from those they are now pursuing. Wilson had set her sights on becoming a teacher while Lenz wanted to study medicine.

“That was before I realized I couldn’t deal with blood or the hospital atmosphere,” he says, adding he became aware of Wetmore’s work through a tour of her lab. “I really liked the idea of studying DNA and the processes that involve DNA.”

Wilson altered her path when she found she enjoyed her science courses so much so that she only wanted to keep building her knowledge.

“I didn’t want to stop learning; I wanted to be able to apply it more in-depth than if I were to get an education degree,” she says. “I got involved in the co-op program during my undergrad to get a research-related job in the summer. There was a job posting to work with Stacey and understanding how DNA damage affects the body interests me, so I worked in her lab that summer and stayed.”

Wilson studies how damaged DNA is replicated in the body. Repair proteins aren’t perfect and they sometimes miss damaged sites. These damaged sites may be replicated and that can introduce further damage into the DNA that can lead to long-term health effects. Since her return from Portugal, she’s shared what she learned with other students in Wetmore’s lab, which is part of the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI) and the Canadian Centre for Research in Advanced Fluorine Technologies (C-CRAFT).

Lenz focuses on DNA repair mechanisms. Several repair pathways exist and they use proteins that catalyze chemical reactions or enzymes to search and reverse the damage caused by the things we encounter on a daily basis, oxygen being the most common. Cancer drugs can also damage DNA and Lenz works to find out how repair proteins work, with the hope of synthesizing new drugs to enhance cancer treatment in the future.

Wilson and Lenz were eligible for the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplements because of their NSERC scholarships. Wilson is a Vanier scholar and Lenz was awarded the Alexander Graham Bell Canadian Graduate Scholarship.

“Studying abroad allows you to build connections and collaborations with other researchers, which are always going to be useful when going on in science,” Wilson says. “It’s a huge benefit to my future, and just getting exposed to a different research environment and being able to adapt allows me to be strengthened as a researcher.”

“The University of Lethbridge has been great,” adds Lenz. “The U of L has been incredibly generous with computer and monetary resources, and mentorship. Stacey, and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry as a whole, have provided valuable insight and direction into my thesis and guided my career path.”

Lenz and Wilson are also grateful to have received scholarships from the U of L and Alberta Innovates-Technologies Futures.