An unexpected path to regenerative medicine

By Angela McInnes, BA’15

As an undergraduate student in biomedical sciences at the University of Waterloo, Niamh Richmond wanted to be a veterinarian. However, things didn’t go according to plan.

Richmond’s interests shifted to human medicine toward the end of her degree. She was especially drawn to investigating the differences in diseases between various species.

After interviewing with Zia Khan, PhD, her current supervisor, she found that Schulich Medicine & Dentistry would be the ideal setting for her to explore her newfound passion. She is now an MSc Candidate in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Schulich Medicine & Dentistry offered advantages such as smaller labs, the use of clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) gene editing technologies, and exclusive access to patient-derived primary cell lines. This benefits Richmond’s research in infantile hemangioma, a stem cell-derived tumour that occurs in approximately 10 per cent of all newborn births in North America.

By studying the mechanisms that regulate changes in the various cell types of the tumour, Richmond hopes to contribute to advances in regenerative medicine.

“Stem cells are the basis of regenerative medicine, and have the potential to become any cell type that you want,” Richmond explained. “I look at modulating how stem cells differentiate to cause involution of the tumour, so that it cures itself or involutes before it causes too much damage.”

Richmond’s current research project may veer away from her initial undergraduate goal, but her background in veterinary science has proven to be an asset while working with animal models. She also shares her expertise as a teaching assistant for a course in veterinary services.

She believes in the power of learning from her peers through team work and collaboration. Inspired by her positive experiences in a collaborative program with the Department of Developmental Biology, she helped to co-found and co-direct the Western Stem Cell Research Group in 2015. which brings together primary investigators in stem cell research from across the London region to discuss their findings. Members also present to local community as part of StemCellTalks, an outreach initiative in partnership with the Stem Cell Network and Let’s Talk Science programs. 

“I really appreciated that Schulich Medicine & Dentistry let me lead, and that it provided the means for me to be able to create this collaboration,” said Richmond. “It’s important that we encourage and support each other’s research and try to help each other to be the best researchers that we can.”

Her learning experiences have been further enriched from the opportunity to attend and compete in Till & McCulloch’s Meetings, which facilitate the congregation of Canada’s leaders in stem cell research.

Above all, Richmond is most excited to explore the possible learning outcomes that await her, no matter where they may lie next. For her, facing the challenge of the unknown is the best part of what she does.

“I would like to stay in regenerative medicine, but I think as a scientist it’s good to branch out into different models,” she said. “There’s no right or wrong answer when you work with a biological system. I don’t see that as a bad thing, because you learn more from when things don’t work the way you expect them to.”