Lockerby grad a researcher at Ivy League school
Last year, Angus' prediction came true – Merry-Lynn, now 34, completed her doctorate in genetic epidemiology.
The former Sudbury woman is now conducting research in her field after being selected for a fellowship at Harvard Medical School, located in Boston, Massachusetts.
Angus, who died about 12 years ago, had recognized early on that his daughter was very intelligent, Merry-Lynn's mother, Merrilyn, said.
He bought a Commodore 64 computer, which was then the latest technology, and designed programs so she could learn to solve mathematical equations. The parents also set aside money for their youngest daughter's education.
“You never know with children what goals or objectives they set for themselves, and whether they want to go that long road or not,” Merrilyn said. “But you could just see Merry-Lynn was going that way.”
Although she now works among the ivory towers of Harvard, Merry-Lynn's student career started off in a typical enough fashion.
She attended Ecole St. Denis during her elementary school years, and then Grade 9 at College Notre Dame before transferring to Lockerby Composite School to take advantage of the school's science and technology program.
“That was great for me,” Merry-Lynn, who spoke with Northern Life while visiting family in Sudbury this week, said. “I had a lot of speciality science classes.
that definitely helped me think about what I was going to do.”
The woman earned a degree in biochemistry from the University of Waterloo, and ended up working in her field at a small biotechnology company for a few years.
After deciding she didn't enjoy her job, she went on to do a master's degree in epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
Epidemiology is all about the numbers. Researchers take data on things like disease rates, for example, and attempt to find a pattern in the numbers that can point to a cause for a certain condition.
After completing her master's degree, Merry-Lynn went on to do a PhD at the Baylor School of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
For her doctoral research, she studied the genetics behind thoracic aortic aneurysm dissection.
This is an often-fatal condition which occurs when a tear in the inner wall of the aorta causes blood to flow between the wall of the aorta, and force the layers apart. It is the same condition that killed actor John Ritter.
“I submitted an abstract (at the American Society of Human Genetics conference) on that, and it was selected for the plenary session,” Merry-Lynn said. “I got to speak to 5,000 people. It's really scary because it's all dark out there, and when people ask questions, it's like the voice of God.
“It was really amazing to have that experience as a PhD student. My current boss was in the audience, so it was kind of like an open interview. That's how I ended up going to Harvard Medical School.”
Her work in this area was published in Nature Genetics.
Merry-Lynn's research now focuses on the small percentage of people who develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) because of genetics instead of smoking.
She said her research, which looks at the reasons behind why people develop certain conditions, ultimately ends up helping people because it can be used to design therapeutic drugs.
While it's taken Merry-Lynn 13 years of university to get to this point, she said for her, it's been worth it because now she's doing something she loves.
“That's why I struggled when I went to work at the biotech company,” she said.
“I didn't like it. I didn't think I could do it for the rest of my life. I liked the number-crunching at the end. That's how I thought of epidemiology. People will bring data to you, and you can analyze it.”
When asked whether an increased focus on medical research in her hometown at Health Sciences North and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine might lure her back here, Merry-Lynn said she's not ruling it out.
“Sudbury's a great place,” she said. “It's beautiful.”
Posted by Arron Pickard