Finding creativity in the Lab

Photograph of Alex Levit, MD/PHD'20
By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

What does creativity mean to you? For some, it’s careful brushstrokes of colour across a blank canvas or fingers searching out the right piano keys. For others, the quick scribbling down of a line of poetry.

For Alex Levit, MD/PhD’20, the word creativity elicits completely different images. He sees the entire scientific process as a creative endeavour – from coming up with the research question, to finding ways to answer it, and writing about the findings in a meaningful way.

“That’s what I love about research,” he said. “There are times that you get to be the very first person in the world to look at a certain microscope slide, and that can be exciting, but no one can tell you how to interpret that slide, you have to come up with a way to describe what you are seeing in ways that everyone can understand.”

Levit, who is graduating with his MD/PhD from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry this spring, didn’t originally intend to pursue a PhD. It was during his first year of medical School, listening to Shawn Whitehead, PhD, talk to the class about studying the connection between cerebral vascular health and neurodegenerative diseases, that got him excited about getting back in the lab.

Levit says that he really connected with the idea that diseases of the brain could be influenced by other organs in the body.

“I found that in neurosciences courses I’d taken in the past there was a laser focus on the brain, and it was disconnected from the body,” he said. “I always thought it was a missed opportunity that we didn’t think about how the brain interacts with something like the vascular system.”

After completing the Summer Research Training Program in Whitehead’s lab, Levit transitioned over into the MD/PhD program co-supervised by Dr. Vladimir Hachinski.

Photograph of Alex LevitHis main research project focused on using preclinical animal models to investigate what role vascular complications like high blood pressure and small strokes have in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. By using a transgenic rat model, they were able to show that here was a correlation between this cerebral vascular stress and changes that are consistent with Alzheimer’s Disease. They also showed that white matter inflammation accelerated by these vascular events might be a culprit in some of the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

“We also found that it’s not just one plus one injury equals two,” said Levit, explaining that having both a stroke and changes in the brain consistent with Alzheimer’s were linked to higher instances of white matter inflammation and cognitive impairment. “We realized that breaking that link might be important in protecting the brain from developing cognitive issues.”

And while there aren’t any reliable treatments for Alzheimer’s disease at the moment, Levit says there are quite a few good interventions that can prevent vascular injury.

Being able to translate those findings in a way that makes sense to the general public was part of the fun for Levit.

“I really think it’s important to take a step back from the scientific world of jargon and present your work in the most accessible way,” he said. “It’s important in developing that trust between the scientific community and the general public by engaging them in a conversation.”

To develop and hone his science communication skills, Levit was the co-chief editor of the UWOMJ, a medical journal produced by medical students at Schulich Medicine, and he was also an associate editor for Clinical and Investigative Medicine, the official journal of the Canadian Society for Clinical Investigation.

He also co-chaired a student-run initiative called Retiring with Strong Minds, which organized one-hour research seminars for residents at a local retirement home.

“The community at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry has been excellent at supporting students in taking on academic and extra-curricular endeavours,” he said. “The flexibility that the administrative staff offers, both in the MD and PhD programs, allows students to truly pursue independent discovery. I think this plays an important role in setting us up for life-long learning.”

Next, Levit will be beginning his residency training in Psychiatry with a research-track at the University of British Columbia where he is looking forward to continuing to explore research questions.

“We can all identify shortcomings and frustrations in medicine, but the reason that there might be a major gap in our ability to treat a condition is because no one in the world has thought of and developed a solution,” he said. “So, you have to use some creativity to pick the right question to research, how you are going to address it, and come up with a solution.”