Hitting her stride: Q&A with Jessica Esseltine, PhD

Jessica Esseltine, PhD

When Jessica Esseltine, PhD, came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to complete her second postdoctoral fellowship with the Laird Laboratory, she had never even worked with stem cells. While it was a big undertaking to become familiar with this type of research, she now feels as though she has found her true calling, and is excited about the possibility of applying her findings to the treatment of bone disease. 

Esseltine sat down with us to discuss her passion for research and policy, her future career goals, and what she likes to do when she's not working in the lab.

Where were you born and raised, and what is your education background?
I was born and raised in St. Thomas, Ontario, and I completed my undergraduate degree in genetics in the Faculty of Science at Western University. I also completed my PhD at Western with Stephen Ferguson, PhD, in his lab at Robarts Research Institute where I learned a lot about microscopy.

After my PhD, I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I came back to Western after a year and ahalf to begin my second postdoctoral fellowship with Dale Laird, PhD, which I started in October 2014.

Tell me about the research you are working on in the Laird Laboratory.
I’m currently studying the development of bones and cartilage, and specifically how that development is perturbed during disease. We have been fortunate to receive some skin samples from five different patients who have a rare genetic bone disorder called oculodentodigital dysplasia (ODDD). While these skin cells are very useful, these patients have bone disease, not skin disease. To try and circumvent that, there is a technique that is relatively common where you can revert any mature cell into a stem-like cell, which is called induced pluripotent stem cells.

We took our skin cells from the patients that have the bone disorder and reverted them back into an induced pluripotent stem cell, and now we have cells that should be able to form any type of cell we direct it toward. We’ve decided to direct these cells toward bone to compare what is different between our controlled cells from patients who do not have disease and our cells from those who do.

Why did you decide to go into research?
Researchers have a job that nobody else in the world has. On a daily basis, I get to see miraculous things — I can look down a microscope at cells that are literally changing from one type to another right before my eyes, which is incredible.

Also, a lot of people don’t realize this but scientists have to be incredibly creative. We are testing hypothesis on a daily basis, so we have to think outside the box and imagine what could possibly be happening and be creative in finding ways to determine whether our hypotheses are correct. Most of science is failing to prove your hypothesis, so you propose what’s happening then you learn that is not what is happening. Then you have to find a different way to approach the problem. When you do get an exciting finding, it’s just indescribable.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced with your research?
I never worked with stem cells before this postdoctoral placement, so learning how to work with this new type of cell was a big undertaking. We reached out and formed collaborations with other researchers at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry so I could learn from them, and I also had to do a lot of studying to learn how to do this type of work.

What are your future career or research goals?
My primary aspiration is to become a faculty member at a Canadian institution, but I’m also very interested in policy. If I could somehow shape scientific policy in Canada, that would be very exciting for me.

As far as my research goes, I think that I’ve definitely hit my stride now with these induced pluripotent stem cells. They are so exciting — I’ve never felt this type of passion toward the research I’m doing.

Can you tell me more about ODDD?
Patients with ODDD can form bone, but they form it in a delayed manner relative to people who don’t have the disorder. One way this mutation manifests is in bone malformations, and other side effects such as overgrowth of cartilage tissue.

Patients with ODDD have a mutation in the connexin43 gene, which is the protein that we study. Connexin43 is a member of the gap junction family of proteins. These proteins form channels that allow molecules to travel directly from one cell to another cell that it is touching — it forms a bridge in between the two cells that allows direct communication. Patients with ODDD have a mutation in that channel, so their communication between cells is impaired.

What is the potential impact of this research you are doing?
The bone disease we’re studying is relatively rare, so we’re hoping to extrapolate the findings of what we see by looking at connexin43 expression during bone development — how it’s dynamically regulated, and how perturbing that system can manifest as changes in bone formation. We’re hoping to apply these findings to a wider global scale.

Bone disease is incredibly prevalent in our society, especially as our population ages. My own grandmother had to have her knees replaced because of arthritis. It’s a primary mandate of the government and funding agencies to try and help these patients with therapies. If we can understand at the molecular level how bones are being formed, and perhaps how that process is disturbed in disease, then maybe we could eventually form new therapies to help these patients.

Do you have any hobbies or take part in any extracurricular activities outside the lab?
Lately I’ve been getting involved with the Departments of Anatomy and Cell Biology and Physiology and Pharmacology. I’m on the Physiology and Pharmacology Research Committee, and recently joined the Postdoctoral Association at Western (PAW). PAW is interested in furthering postdoctoral representation at Western and within Canada, and I enjoy policy so it’s very exciting.

I also love my two dogs. Throughout my PhD, my husband and I used to volunteer for an animal rescue organization called All Breed Canine Rescue, and we probably fostered close to 50 dogs. It was really fun and rewarding, because you had the chance to meet so many animals that needed loving homes.