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Finding inspiration in the lab

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Adrienne Wakabayashi, BMSc’12, MSc’15, was inspired to pursue science from an early age by her science teachers who had unique ways of presenting information. Recalling her grade 7 and 12 teachers, she says the way they nurtured students’ interest in science by explaining the scientific method and making innovative use of technology was particularly inspiring to her.  

Wakabayashi chose the Honours Bachelor of Medical Sciences degree at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as the avenue to pursue her passion for science. In her third year she refined her interests into a double major in Microbiology and Immunology, and Medical Cell Biology. Wakabayashi knew she wanted to pursue research as part of her career, so she began seeking out new opportunities to explore this interest.

After speaking with John McCormick, PhD, she decided to enroll in his fourth-year research course. Working in McCormick’s lab, she studied a toxin from Staphylococcus aureus to examine whether it activated iNKT cells. For her efforts and exceptional work on this project, Wakabayashi received the highest mark in the course.

Wanting to stay in a lab environment, she began her Master’s degree in microbiology and immunology. Her thesis, which was also supervised by McCormick, focused on Streptococcus pyogenes to determine if a functional redundancy with these toxins could be identified.
Wakabayashi says her interest in the immune system, bacteria and viruses led her to explore this question in her Master’s research.

“This is a subject I’ve always been interested in, and even coming out of high school, it seemed like something I always wanted to end up studying or working with,” she said.

Referring to her time in McCormick’s lab as one that was positive and enriching, Wakabayashi describes him as an exceptional supervisor who runs his lab with precision and kindness. His ability to foster a productive research environment and promote a friendly atmosphere made his lab and the people in it an inspiration to Wakabayashi.

“He promotes strong experiments and good work, and I think that it’s really important to have someone who has that experience who can guide people in the right direction. It’s also an inspiring environment to be in because he has a knack for finding people who are really smart and who are also really nice people,” said Wakabayashi.

Her time in Dr. McCormick’s lab also equipped her with the necessary critical thinking and writing skills to take a position at Public Health Ontario.

At Public Health Ontario, Wakabayashi studied Listeria monocytogenes, which is a type of bacteria that typically causes illness in those who have a compromised immune system, or those who are elderly or young. In the lab she examined strains of Listeria derived from food samples to determine if there were any genetic differences present.

“Working at Public Health Ontario was really interesting because I had the opportunity to learn about genomic sequencing and analyzing genomic data for differences between Listeria strains. I also did some computer programming, which I previously had no background knowledge of,” she said.

Now that Wakabayashi has moved back to her hometown of London, Ontario, she is looking to keep her options open.  Currently, she is working as the Postgraduate Academic Program Coordinator in the Department of Family Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. While this role is not explicitly a research position, Wakabayashi does assist and advise first and second year medical residents with their research projects.

“Do I want to go back to on-the-bench research? Maybe. I want to keep the door open. I am certainly interested in more school,” she said. “If I were to go back to school I’d consider doing a PhD.”

In her personal life, Wakabayashi cites her family as an important part of what motivates her. Her mother and sister are particularly strong role models for her because of their personal and professional accomplishments.

“I have some pretty strong female role models in my mom and my sister. I think both of them have done a really good job of going after what they want while also managing to keep some balance in life,” said Wakabayashi.

While she is uncertain of exactly what step she wants to take next, Wakabayashi will undoubtedly take her experiences, skills and inspirations from the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry community with her to inspire and educate others with her patience, friendly spirit and expertise.