Love of discovery distinguishes top-ranked PhD student

(Edmonton) Daniel Prins, a biochemistry PhD student at the University of Alberta, has won a Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The scholarship provides special recognition and support to students pursuing doctoral degrees in a health-related field in Canada. CIHR receives many applications from students across the country for these awards. Prins was the top ranked of 852 applicants this year.

Working in the lab of Marek Michalak, Prins studies a delicately balanced process called store-operated calcium entry, which has been implicated in a variety of diseases. A deficiency in the process leads to severe combined immunodeficiency—an immune system that doesn’t function. When the process is overactive it can contribute to breast cancer metastasis—the spreading of cancer cells from the site of the initial tumour to other tissues throughout the body.

Prins examines how the process is controlled at a basic molecular level. The hope is that some understanding of the process’s fundamentals might eventually result in an ability to control the pathway, with an eye to developing a drug treatment to inhibit breast cancer’s ability to spread.

“That’s obviously very big picture, and we’re just looking at a very small part of that, but you have to start somewhere,” explains Prins. “It is very important to start with a basic scientific understanding of the principles of how these pathways work. It will also allow me and other scientists to ask better questions in the future about how we can control cancer. Basic research is a building block that can help clinicians treat disease more effectively.”

This type of discovery-based research is what first attracted Prins to Michalak’s lab as a summer student in 2007 and what motivates him to continue his work. “This is such an outstanding lab to work in, with an excellent supervisor and great people. Right from the start, I just loved being around people who were asking all these questions that no one knew the answer to. I really enjoy the discovery aspect of research. Seeing something true about the world that nobody has ever known before you figure it out—that’s a really great feeling.”

Michalak says this love of discovery is one of the characteristics that makes Prins such a strong student. “We are very lucky to have Daniel here at the U of A,” said the vice-dean of research in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and winner of the 2012 University Cup, the U of A’s highest academic honour. “My philosophy is that when I feel my students know more than I do, then it’s time for them to graduate and move on. Daniel is getting there almost before his time. And it’s rewarding to see strong support at the national level for students who are conducting the basic research that can make such a difference to future health care.”