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Seizing the day

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By Ciara Parsons, BA'15

When Alison Allan, PhD, began her undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph, she figured it would be the first stepping-stone in her academic journey of pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian.  Recalling her years riding horses competitively, Allan says she was always passionate about animals.

She received her first taste of basic science research during her fourth year of undergraduate studies, which very quickly made her reconsider her original career plans. Allan grew to love the lab environment and was fascinated by the research she was completing on liver regeneration. “I was hooked on research,” she said speaking frankly about her experience.

With parallels between liver regeneration and cancer, Allan began her foray into the discipline of oncology research during her PhD graduate studies.

“I always wanted to work with cancer research because I found it really fascinating how ‘one little switch’ could be the cause of either normal or abnormal growth in the body,” she said.

Staying in the same lab in which she completed her undergraduate research in, Allan and her supervisor came up with a project that would allow her to pursue her interests in cancer.

Allan, who is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Oncology and Anatomy and Cell Biology and also the acting chair of Anatomy and Cell Biology, now has her own lab where she primarily focuses on studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of metastasis in breast and prostate cancers.

“When tumours form in the breast or prostate, the surgeon and the radiation oncologist are pretty good at treating it, and, oftentimes, eliminating the cancer when it stays localized. But we don’t know how often the tumour cells escape into the bloodstream and go to critical organs like the lung, or the liver or the brain that you need in order to function properly,” said Allan.  

The goal of her discovery-driven research is to identify the genes and proteins that contribute to metastasis so that new, targeted treatments to stop metastasis can be launched.

Allan also works on clinical and translational research, and through collaborations with physicians at London Health Sciences Centre she is developing blood-based tests and biomarkers for tracking metastasis and monitoring patient response to treatment.

“We’re one of the Canadian leaders in this area,” said Allan. “We’re always trying to find new and more effective technologies to apply to our clinical trials as a means of discovering a new clinical utility.”

And while she is clearly passionate about research and accomplished in her field of study, Allan notes that research is difficult and requires a certain ‘type’ of personality.

“I always say that scientists solve problems for a living. As a researcher and scientist, you have to establish a process of problem solving and try to not get discouraged by any failures along the way,” she said. “You have to have thick skin. Since receiving funding and getting papers published in journals is often difficult to achieve, resiliency is necessary.”

This notion of problem solving and critical thinking is also something Allan tries to embed in the graduate trainees that work in her lab.  Supervising three master’s students, one MD/PhD student and a postdoctoral fellow, she says influencing them to think ‘outside the box’ and to not just take things at face value is one of her main priorities.

In fact, she says one of her greatest successes stems from a graduate trainee who challenged her with a new project idea.

“A former master’s graduate trainee in my lab had an idea for a project that originally I didn’t think would work. However, her idea ended up being successful and steered our research in a different direction, which also resulted in us publishing papers in journals and receiving new grants. This experience taught me to give graduate trainees more free-rein over projects,” said Allan.  

And just as she is a mentor to her graduate trainees, Allan says the expertise she holds wouldn’t have been possible without the help of her own role models who she has encountered in her academic career, listing her PhD supervisor, Jonathan LaMarre, PhD, and postdoctoral mentor, Ann Chambers, PhD, as just a few people who have inspired her years in the lab.

“Ann Chambers has served as an example of a successful female scientist to me and inspired my career,” Allan said.

With Allan being one of the youngest department chairs, and one of just a few females in a male-dominated field, she said, “Women have a lot to contribute to science. I think that environmentally, this is a really conducive time to females being successful, so hopefully I can model that and continue to embody the things I admire about my own role models.”

Though still early in her career, Allan says some of her long-term career goals include reaching full professor status, growing her innovative and productive research program and re-exploring some of the basic science research she began as a junior investigator so that she can impact patient care.

“A lot of my career has been serendipitous and simply seizing opportunities when they arose. This ‘open-minded’ approach that I have applied to my professional work has been really beneficial and I hope to be able to keep this outlook,” she said.

Follow Alison Allan on Twitter @aallan74