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Doctoral student Necola Guerrina: connecting basic respiratory research with clinical needs

Necola Guerrina is unlikely to become the stereotypical solitary scientist. This doctoral student in pathology has a talent for communication and collaboration, which serves her well when she ventures into new research territory.

A native of Vermont, United States, Necola became interested in respiratory diseases while taking courses at Midwestern University just outside Chicago, leading her to join Dr. Carolyn Baglole’s laboratory at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) in 2014. 

Dr. Baglole’s team studies chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “COPD is the third leading cause of death in the world today,” says Necola, “and it’s primarily caused by breathing in lung irritants such as cigarette smoke and air pollution.” To date, there is no known cure.

Research in this laboratory revolves around cooperation and mutual help, according to Necola. She finds that Dr. Baglole gives latitude to trainees while encouraging them to get out of their comfort zones and innovate. “She always pushes us to think outside the box!”

With Dr. Baglole’s support, Necola joined the management committee of the Translational Research in Respiratory Diseases Program (RESP). One of her roles in this committee has been to help establish an initiative that will provide basic research trainees at the RI-MUHC a chance to shadow clinicians and see the potential practical applications for their research. This project would bring together members of the three RI‑MUHC centres and their respective methodologies: members of the Centre for Translational Biology, home to Dr. Baglole’s lab; the Centre for Innovative Medicine, which supports clinical research; and the Centre for Outcomes Research and Evaluation.

In the lab, Necola’s research focuses on a protein called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), to study whether it can protect against the development of COPD caused by cigarette smoke. “A relatively small percentage of all cigarette smokers actually go on to develop COPD, meaning that something more than smoking contributes to the development of this disease,” she says. “This suggests that we’re missing a piece in the COPD puzzle, and I’m on a mission to find that missing piece.”

Over time, Necola has learned that doors open when you cultivate resources. She is thankful for the move to the new Glen site because it has given her access to valuable equipment and expertise in the technology platforms. This experience has served her well, says Dr. Baglole. “Necola has shown exceptional independence in her research project.” 

Taking part in competitions that prepare her for presenting at conferences is also part of Necola’s research life. She recently placed second in the challenging 3-Minute Thesis/Ma thèse en 180 secondes at McGill University, and is among 30 students selected to represent the Canadian Thoracic Society at the American Thoracic Society in Washington, D.C., this spring.

After her doctorate, Necola is considering going into medicine. “I really want to pursue the clinician-scientist route. I love research and I love trying to solve questions that we don’t have answers to,” she says. “But I also love the clinical side of medicine and the idea of working with people. I want my research endeavours to be driven by unanswered clinical questions.” 

—April 2017