One Doesn't Have to Work in the Circus to be a Talented Juggler

Dorothy Cheung’s resume shows an impressive list of educational and professional accomplishments. She’s worked in a diversity of UBC-based and private sector labs in Vancouver, including labs in UBC’s departments of botany, biotechnology, and pediatrics, the Centre for Plant Research at the UBC Botanical Garden and at Viridae Clinical Sciences. Now a computational biologist at the Genome Sciences Centre in Vancouver, she’s also the recipient of three degrees from UBC: a Bachelor of Science degree in biology (genetics), a Master’s Degree in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and a Bachelor of Computer Science degree. What really stands out when you talk with Dorothy is the realization that the latter part of her professional experience and education has been undertaken either while she’s been pregnant or caring for two small children, which as any parent can attest is no mean feat!

Dorothy’s interest in genomics began with a general fascination with the human body, it’s biology and the fact that, as she says, “in everyday life it’s just a miracle.” This interest led her to UBC’s Department of Biology and then, in the summer following her second year, to a Department of Botany lab, where under the direction of Dr. C. J. Douglas, she was first introduced to a variety of molecular biology techniques. It was there, visiting the UBC greenhouses and learning how to conduct genetics tests on plant samples, that her “eyes were opened to the plant world” and her love of molecular biology began.

At the start of her third year as an undergrad, Dorothy had made the decision to specialize in genetics and by the end of her coursework was undertaking a directed studies program in the Department of Biotechnology. There, using microbiology and molecular biology techniques, she examined the genetic properties of Cryptococcus neoformans, a yeast that can severely affect patients with compromised immune systems. By this time she was adept at performing bacteriology setups, extracting DNA from the fungus via polymerase chain reaction (PCR) techniques, then amplifying the genes that she wanted to study.

Graduating from UBC with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1995, Dorothy was attracted to a posting in UBC’s Department of Pediatrics for a lab technician. There she met Dr. D. P. Speert, a pediatrician with a clinical interest in cystic fibrosis. Under his direction Dorothy developed a pioneer mouse study that tested normal lung function in mice that had artificially depleted levels of alveolar macrophages, a particular form of white blood cell, and that were subsequently inoculated with Pseudomoas aeruginosa, which is a major pathogen in the cystic fibrosis lung. Though she “stumbled a lot and learned a lot” in that study, Dorothy was happy to contribute to an area of foundational science that may be of future use in the study of cystic fibrosis. Motivated by her experiences in Dr. Speert’s lab, Dorothy applied to the Faculty of Medicine for a Master’s Degree and attained her Master’s of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in 1999, with the mouse model becoming the foundational work for her Master’s thesis.

After receiving the Master’s, Dorothy moved into the private sector for three years, working as a Research Associate at Viridae Clinical Sciences, Inc., in Vancouver, where again she applied molecular biology techniques, this time specifically testing viruses and drug efficacy. There she would grow a virus, such as hepatitis B or dengue fever virus, add a particular drug, look at the virus’s subsequent growth over time, and conduct genetic testing on the virus. Her goal was to help screen for drugs to which viruses were susceptible and thereby point the way toward more effective treatments for various diseases.

Eager to move beyond “sitting at a count-top bench where experiments are performed and running experiments all day,” Dorothy was eager to make a job switch in which she would have a greater range of responsibilities. In 2002 she saw that an expansion was underway at the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research (formerly known as the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Horticulture). She contacted the Centre’s incoming director, Dr. Quentin Cronk, and was promptly hired as a research technician and lab manager. This marked a big jump for her. Now, in addition to her regular molecular biology research, she helped train summer and graduate students, organized meetings and special events for the Centre, maintained the Centre’s weblog, and even consulted on renovations to the Centre’s facility. The variety of her new experiences was “a challenge, for sure,” she notes, but these were challenges she was excited to shoulder. 

By the mid-2000s, genomics had moved from the periphery of popular awareness directly to the centre, due in no small part to the Human Genome Project, begun in the 1990s, and the SARS outbreak of 2002, in which gene sequencing helped researchers and clinicians understand the virus’s unique qualities. Interest in the field grew quickly in Vancouver, and Dorothy began to feel that “if I were more proficient in CS I could do more, and that I needed to be able to step up to be able to analyze more data.”

In the midst of these plans, in March 2004, Dorothy’s already full life became that much more so with the birth of her son, Nathan. That summer she enrolled in UBC as an unclassified student and took a technical writing course, then signed on in early 2005 for CS 111, an introductory programming course typically offered to first-year undergrads. When asked how she managed to take care of a baby, do coursework in an unfamiliar field, and hold down a full-time job, Dorothy laughs and notes that her husband helped her understand the logical reasoning behind programming, her parents and in-laws helped with childcare, and Dr. Cronk was a flexible boss.

Taking 111 was an eye-opener for her, as it helped her think with the logic required of programmers. She recalls that professor Kurt Eiselt was excellent in helping his students understand the material. From Dr. Eiselt she further learned the importance of understanding the process of programming rather than a single programming language.

All of this was a confidence-booster as she set about researching options for continuing education in computer science and specifically in bioinformatics. In early 2005 she came across an ad for the BCS program, saw that it was directed at students with an existing degree who wanted to integrate that background with computer science, and thought, “Well, that’s for me!” Interviewing with the program director, she was accepted into the program for the fall of 2005. Dorothy recalls that the director, Dr. Paul Carter, and program administrator, Michele Ng, were supportive and worked with her to fashion a schedule for undertaking the BCS program that would accommodate her job and family demands.

This flexible accommodation was a huge boon, when, in March 2006, Dorothy’s second child Eleanor was born. She recalls with a smile that she finished a midterm right before the birth, delivered her daughter, then returned to classes two weeks later in time to finalize a big project due at the end of the semester. Now juggling a toddler, an infant and coursework, Dorothy felt the pressure. “Sometimes I was really tired and felt ready to give up, but I stuck with it. It was a big challenge, but when you’re in the middle of it, you just do it!”

Today those tiny children are in preschool and Grade 1 and Dorothy has successfully completed the BCS program. Since 2008 she has been employed as a computational biologist at the Genomic Sciences Centre in Vancouver, working under the direction of Centre director Marco Marra. In this position, Dorothy’s undergraduate and BCS coursework in genetics, medical genetics, pathology and statistics combine with her knowledge of software development, database development, and algorithms in bioinformatics gained during the BCS program. A multi-disciplinary field involving biology, medicine, pharmacology, and other research subjects, bioinformatics allows researchers to employ numerous cross-disciplinary techniques to advance the scientific understanding of some of the thorniest of medical research issues.  

One such project at the Genomic Sciences Centre involves the genome-wide analysis of lymphomas, wherein researchers attempt to identify the genes, protein targets, and markers characteristic of these cancers, which then can be used as targets for anti-cancer treatments. Lymphoid malignancies are the fourth most common cancer seen in Canada, and their incidence has increased by 2.0% annually for more than 50 years. The physical characteristics of cancer cells often result from underlying genetic changes, specifically gene expression and mutated protein products that form new biological entities. As part of a team of bioinformaticians, clinicians and researchers, Dorothy has studied the gene expression and chromosome rearrangements in lymphoid tumours as compared to normal cells by developing software and performing bioinformatics analysis on microarray data.

Working every day with dedicated, talented colleagues in a visionary workplace is the culmination of a multi-year effort that has involved the collaboration of many people. Dorothy notes that she’s had a lot of help from her parents, her in-laws, and her husband. She also credits the flexibility of her bosses at the Centre for Plant Research and Genomic Sciences Centre. And she has strong regard for the people of the BCS program, who helped her negotiate the tricky terrain of student, mother, and job-holder. “The BCS program helps integrate new areas of study for people who want to do more for their lives but who are hesitant or afraid. For example, it’s allowed me to integrate my biology background with computer science to further the understanding of a really important area of biomedical research. BCS has been established for quite a few years and has the people and the program to support students. They make the transition smoother for people coming into computer science. With their help, you can try your best and succeed!”