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Opportunity of a lifetime

Faculty of Medicine student chases her genetic research dreams

Student Life

By Michelle Osmond

It was May 3 — a date Alison Sutherland says she won’t forget.

“I saw the beginning of the email with the subject line “Rothermere Fellowship 2017” that read: “Dear Alison, I am delighted to…” People are rarely delighted to tell you you didn’t receive the award,” Ms. Sutherland recalled.

Faculty of Medicine student Alison Sutherland is the 2017 Rothermere fellow.
Faculty of Medicine student Alison Sutherland is the 2017 Rothermere fellow.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

“I immediately collapsed out of my chair and on to the floor. After being on the floor for what was hopefully only a few seconds of panting in disbelief, I got myself together enough to grab my phone and go to the stairwell and phone my mom.”

Hearing the news, her mother began to cry. The letter confirmed that Ms. Sutherland would be able to continue her education in ways she had only ever dreamed of.

Established by Memorial University’s first chancellor, Lord Rothermere, the fellowship is awarded annually by the Rothermere Fellowships Trust to a candidate who will be pursuing their studies for a higher degree at a university of their choice in the United Kingdom and who is committed to Newfoundland and Labrador. The fellowship is currently valued at about £16,500 per year, plus tuition fees, and return airfare to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ms. Sutherland is headed to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom later this year to begin her PhD. Her research could result in more accurate predictions of disease development and drug response for Indigenous Canadians.

Focus on genetics

Ms. Sutherland completed a bachelor of science (honours) at the University of Guelph in 2012. The day after, she embarked on a two-year solo backpacking trip across 32 countries, completing a full lap of the globe.

In 2015 she began her career in research at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, as a laboratory assistant. She performed vaccine evaluations on samples from children in developing nations in association with the World Health Organization.

“I plan to study various aspects of genetics to enable me to adequately teach the subject as a whole.”  — Alison Sutherland

That same year, she started her master’s degree in science under the supervision of Dr. Proton Rahman and Dr. Darren O’Reilly at the Faculty of Medicine. Since then, she’s worked on investigating genetic markers for treatment response in patients with psoriatic arthritis, a genetic disorder common in Newfoundland and Labrador’s population.

Outside of her master’s work, Ms. Sutherland volunteers as a mentor with Let’s Talk Science and as a Girl Guide leader, she teaches art to a group of Syrian girls “to ensure they are given the same opportunities for extracurricular activities as their brothers” and within the genetics community at Memorial, she leads a project titled Tea with Jane, a series of video recordings with Dr. Jane Green – one of the founding members of genetics research in Newfoundland and Labrador.


“When I “grow up” I would like to be a professor of genetics,” Ms. Sutherland said. “This award allows me to shift within the discipline from medical to evolutionary genetics, which will help me to gain a better-rounded knowledge base in genetics. Often professors are experts in only one area of their field. I plan to study various aspects of genetics to enable me to adequately teach the subject as a whole.”

She hopes to be part of a project, The Genetic and Immunological Impact of European Contact on Indigenous North Americans, with the goal of better genomic medicine for Indigenous Canadians.

“There are not many times in your life that you can point to and say that that’s when everything changed for me, but May 3 was one of those days. It was the most intense feeling of relief I’ve ever had,” said Ms. Sutherland. “I can hardly express how fortunate I feel to have been given this opportunity of a lifetime.”

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