My path to a career in science and medicine was convoluted, but not without direction. I grew up in east Africa on an island in the Indian Ocean. Both my maternal grandparents died at very young ages of undiagnosed conditions. While the setting was idyllic, the reason for my grandparents’ deaths, or rather the lack of a reason bothered me.

This great gap in understanding—the causes of disease or even to be able to diagnose diseases was something that continued to gnaw at me even after moving to Canada. The desire to understand how things worked led me to a genetics lab while I was at Queen’s University.

In this lab I studied fruit fly DNA. It was early days in trying to understand how DNA worked, what genes were and what they did. There was even less understanding of how this contributed to disease. Fruit fly DNA is organized into large packages called chromosomes. While humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, fruit flies only have 4 pairs, but the way genes work is very similar.

This ability to use simpler organisms to understand how DNA works was an important lesson to me, and is a concept that still holds today. I spent every summer after that working in a genetics laboratory.

After completing undergraduate studies and medical school at Queens, I moved to Vancouver. I continued to be enthralled by the promise of being able to understand disease by understanding how genes worked.

At the time, blood cancers were the only cancer type that laboratory genetic techniques were being used for diagnosis. This led me to train in a laboratory medicine specialty to understand how blood diseases worked. After completing my clinical laboratory training at UBC, I did further research training for several years at the University of Washington in Seattle, a hub of blood disease research.

At the BC Cancer Agency, I have been honoured to work with many talented scientists, physicians and other staff. The culture of scientific discovery to further our understanding of what makes cancers happen, and how we can try to detect them sooner and find treatments to stem their growth is world class. The dedication of so many individuals and the support of the BC Cancer Foundation has led to many ground-breaking discoveries about cancer. Next week I will blog about the work that the BC Cancer Foundation will be supporting in my lab to understand how some kinds of blood cancers become more aggressive.


Aly

Head of the Centre for Clinical Diagnostic Genomics and the Medical Director of the Cancer Genetics Lab, BC Cancer Agency