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‘Whole new field’

Memorial graduate student receives 'life-changing' Rothermere Fellowship

By Kelly Foss

Gerissa Fowler (B.Sc.’16) has been named this year’s Rothermere Fellowship recipient, one of Memorial’s most prestigious and lucrative scholarships.

Originally from Happy Valley-Goose Bay and an alumna of the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, she is currently finishing a master’s degree in genetics with the Faculty of Medicine.

“I imagine this is what winning the lottery feels like.” — Gerissa Fowler

The rock climbing enthusiast has been accepted to begin a D.Phil. in medical sciences at the University of Oxford this fall.

“It’s all very surreal,” she said. “A friend of mine received the Rothermere a few years ago and, had I not known her, I would never have applied for it. It just seemed too out of reach.

“When I woke up and saw an email titled ‘Rothermere Fellowship 2020’ my heart immediately began to race. I imagine this is what winning the lottery feels like. It’s essentially like winning an academic lottery.”

She says she felt that way again when she received the email from Oxford offering her a place in their program.

“That’s when I really knew my life was going to change,” she said.

Exceptional scholar

Established by Memorial University’s first chancellor, Lord Rothermere, the generous trust will cover the full cost of Ms. Fowler’s studies in the United Kingdom, including airfare and a yearly stipend.

The award is currently valued at about £18,400 per year, plus tuition fees, and is given to an exceptional scholar who has completed a first degree at Memorial.

“I’ve found a really exciting project . . . how the body detects a virus is present and what proteins and procedures the virus uses to combat the host’s immune system.” — Gerissa Fowler

A lifelong interest in genetics drew her to Memorial and an undergraduate honours thesis in wildlife genetics under the supervision of Dr. Dawn Marshall, investigating the relationship between genetics and disease susceptibility in Newfoundland and Labrador wildlife populations.

For her master’s, Ms. Fowler has been studying gene mutations that cause stroke phenotypes in humans with Dr. Curtis French, examining how those mutations affect blood vessel development in zebrafish to get a better understanding of how it happens in humans, what the process looks like and how to prevent it.

“I am so proud of my master’s project and everything I put into it, but there is still so much to learn,” she said. “For my D.Phil. I’ve found a really exciting project with a researcher who studies nucleic acid sensing, basically how the body detects a virus is present and what proteins and procedures the virus uses to combat the host’s immune system. It’s a whole new field for me.”

‘Get the absolute most’

Ms. Fowler says, given the current state of world affairs, it has become abundantly clear that a fundamental understanding of the molecular mechanisms of viral infection is critical to guide and develop disease management strategies, treatments, and vaccines.

“Winning the Rothermere is amazing and I really want to get the absolute most out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “This project will give me a chance to branch out and learn new techniques, to really push myself and make me a more well-rounded researcher.”

While there is still uncertainty because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Fowler hopes to begin the first of her three years of studies at Oxford in October.

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