For our fourth Ask A Mentor Spotlight feature, we have Haley Wyatt
Get to know a little more about Haley:
My name is Haley Wyatt: I was born and raised in the small rural community of Broadview, Saskatchewan (Canada). My research training in biochemistry and molecular biology began during my postgraduate studies at the Southern Alberta Cancer Research Institute and the University of Calgary. Under the supervision of Tara Beattie, I studied the human telomerase reverse transcriptase (hTERT). hTERT is the catalytic subunit of telomerase, an enzyme that has a pivotal role in cellular proliferation and organismal aging and is deregulated in many types of cancer. After receiving my PhD in 2009, I moved to Stephen West’s laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London, England to pursue my interests in DNA repair and mechanisms of genome instability. My research has significantly advanced our understanding of the biochemical and cellular functions of the SLX4 protein and its role as a scaffold for nuclease complexes that repair DNA damage and maintain genome stability. This research is of particular relevance to human health because mutations in SLX4 (and its associated nucleases) are linked to Fanconi anemia, a complex disorder characterized by bone marrow failure, chromosomal instability, and cancer susceptibility. In 2017, I moved back to Canada to open my lab in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto. My lab is currently working to understand how DNA repair pathways operate in human cells. My research will help us understand how human cells counteract the deleterious effects of DNA damaging agents to thwart off diseases like cancer.
Thank you to everyone who submitted a question. Don't forget to check out our Instagram page (@girlsystem.mentor) as we will be posting some of the Q&A responses on our Instagram stories too (watch her lab tour).
Questions and Answers
Question 1. Do you have to take a biochemistry or biology undergraduate degree to go into cancer research?
- In general yes, but the exact courses might depend on what area of cancer research you
want to pursue after your undergraduate degree. For example, the requirements for a
career in cancer epidemiology or cancer research policy may be a different than those
required in a career that seeks to develop novel ways of detecting or treating disease. The
best advice that I can give is to seek clarification or guidance from the registrar’s office or
career office at the University where you will be completing your undergraduate degree.
Question 2. What courses did you take in your undergraduate degree?
- I obtained a Bachelor of Science Honours from the University of Regina, Saskatchewan in
the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. I completed the required courses for this
degree, which included a range of core courses in the arts (e.g., English) and sciences
(e.g., biology, biochemistry, chemistry, and physics), as well as several elective courses in
Psychology, which allowed me to graduate with a Minor in Psychology. I wanted to pursue a research-focused degree, so I enrolled in the Honours Program. This gave me the opportunity to complete an 8-month research course in the final year of my degree. My project involved visualizing and characterizing the cell wall ultrastructure of a moss that is used extensively in plant biology. I also enrolled in the Co-operative work/study program, where I completed 12-months of research in a fully-salaried chemistry or biochemistry related job. Specifically, I worked for 8-months at the Buffalo Pound Water Treatment Plant in Saskatchewan, where I developed a strong skill set in analytical chemistry. I next completed an 8-month work term with Defence Research and Development Canada in Suffield, Alberta. Here I was involved in cutting-edge research to develop methods for the rapid detection of chemical warfare agents in a field-based setting. Altogether, these research experiences cemented my desire to pursue graduate studies in the life sciences.
Question 3. What got you interested in Cancer Research?
- My interest in cancer research was sparked during my Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. I
joined the lab of Dr. Tara Beattie, who is an expert in the broad areas of telomerase biochemistry and telomere biology. Telomerase is a fascinating enzyme that has the
essential job of maintaining the length of telomeres. Telomeres are found at the ends of
chromosomes and can be thought of as caps that protect our chromosomes from being
sensed as broken DNA. However, telomeres lose this protective function when they get
too short. Enter telomerase, which can be thought of as a telomere guardian because of
its ability to lengthen telomeres and regenerate these protective caps. Interestingly, most
cancer cells hijack telomerase to make sure that it is never turned off. This is important
because it allows these cells to grow and survive in the presence of mutations and
imbalances that would normally kill the cell. In fact, telomerase activation is one of
several events that occur during the transformation of a normal cell into a cancer cell. In
general, I find cancer interesting because of the ability of cancer cells to hijack and rewire
the basic biological pathways that operate regularly in a healthy cell and organism.
Question 4. What does a typical day look like in your lab?
- I want to start by acknowledging that this really depends on the stage of your career. For
example, as a student researcher your day is going to be weighted heavily towards
designing and executing experiments, while also analyzing and interpreting the results. As
an Assistant Professor at the UofT, my day-to-day activities include various aspects of
research, teaching, and what’s generally referred to as service. My research activities
include mentoring and guiding the trainees in my lab, writing manuscripts and grant
applications, formulating new ideas for research projects, visiting different institutes or
conferences to talk about our research discoveries, ordering reagents, and other general
lab maintenance duties. Beyond these activities, I coordinate and lecture in a third-year
undergraduate course that focuses on protein structure and function, supervise and
mentor undergraduate students that complete research-based courses in my lab, and
serve on several graduate supervisory committees. Some of the general service activities
that I partake in include the graduate admissions committee, which evaluates student
applications for our graduate program, faculty search committees, among others. I also
have to keep up with reading the scientific literature and responding to various email
inquiries throughout the day. So I have lots of variety!
Question 5. Why did you pursue additional education after your undergraduate degree?
- I’ve always been a very inquisitive person and I realized that I had a strong passion for
scientific research during my undergraduate degree. As such, I made the decision to
pursue this passion further by enrolling in the Ph.D. program in the Department of
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Calgary. It was during this degree
that I was introduced to the broad area of cancer biology.