Nov 28, 2022

How communicating science secured a Vanier Award

Programs: Graduate, Agile education, Research: Hematopathology, Impactful research, Disruptive Innovation
Danielle Karakas
By Jenni Bozec

“Effective communication is incredibly important in science, whether training someone on a protocol or a piece of equipment, or a piece of scientific writing,” explains Danielle Karakas, PhD candidate in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Working as a volunteer to teach high school students helped her hone her scientific communications skills and enabled her to become a better leader and scientist, something the Vanier program recognized by awarding her the latest Vanier Scholarship in LMP.  

As a third-year PhD candidate in Dr. Heyu Ni’s lab at St. Michael’s Hospital (Unity Health Toronto), Danielle studies “all things platelets”. 

Blood contains many types of cells: white blood cells (monocytes, lymphocytes, neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils, and macrophages), red blood cells (erythrocytes), and platelets. Emerging research shows that platelets are not only crucial to hemostasis, the slowing or stopping of blood and clotting, but a variety of other factors such as angiogenesis (blood vessel growth), liver regeneration, and the immune system. Danielle specifically looks at the role of thrombopoietin, the hormone that regulates platelet production and maintenance of the environment where the stems cells that develop into all types of blood and immune cells form: the Hematopoietic stem cell niche.

“Platelets are very diverse cells and this is an emerging and exciting field,” explains Danielle. “We found that liver macrophages (white blood cells that perform vital roles in the immune system) are required for the regulation of thrombopoietin which was a surprising finding”. Her research will help build knowledge in this vital area, but also, she hopes, help inform future therapies. “If we can refine the thrombopoietin mechanism, we could potentially stimulate the production of platelets in thrombocytopenic patients, such as those with cancer or autoimmune diseases.”

But being a PhD candidate and a Vanier Scholar is not just about what happens in the lab. What elevated Danielle’s Vanier application was the diversity in her extracurriculars and how she has applied those experiences. She has volunteered in mentoring children and been an active member of the University of Toronto Graduate Students Union (UTGSU), amongst many things. 

“I’ve participated in all levels of volunteering and even started my own mentoring organization. From that, I could pull many examples of what I have learned. All these different experiences have taught me something and helped me develop as a leader. However, what I emphasized in my application was how each of these diverse experiences have made me a better scientist. I took those experiences and I applied them to the lab, for example, in how I could help train new students and collaborate with other labs to share my protocol or disseminate my knowledge.”

Her most rewarding experience was in setting up her own mentoring organization. She recruited over 25 mentors who provide free tutoring in STEM subjects every two weeks to students at a local high school.

“Getting tutoring can be expensive so I wanted to provide an accessible solution for these students. It’s really taught me how to reflect on my communication and check in with the person so that I’m communicating in a way that’s understood.” She also wanted to expose high school students to what a PhD is and that it has much value even outside an academic career path. “A PhD helps you refine so many valuable skills you can market for other jobs. I wish I had understood this earlier,” she explains.

Danielle was shocked she received the Vanier and couldn’t believe it at first. “I’m lucky I have such a strong support network who persuaded me to apply as I wasn’t going to do it. It demonstrates that you should always just try!”

Completing a PhD during COVID, like for so many others, has been challenging. One thing Danielle has missed has been attending conferences “to learn things that are not public and get advice from experts who may not have the tunnel vision I have in my project”. She is delighted that the Vanier Award will provide her with more opportunities to travel to conferences.

Now she’s a senior student and, as more possibilities open as COVID restrictions ease, it’s “time to really grow up. As my PI would say, it's time to be brave and be a bit more independent”, smiles Danielle. Achieving a Vanier will certainly help with that.

More about Vanier Scholars

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program is designed to attract and retain world-class doctoral students by offering them a significant financial award to assist them during their studies at Canadian universities. Vanier Scholars demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health-related fields.

See the full list of 2022 Vanier Scholars

See also:

Dr. Heyu Ni faculty profile