When you meet Katayoon Kasaian, a warmly engaging and well-rounded person who loves to hike and snowboard, spend time with friends, and enjoy good food and wine, you immediately feel yourself in the presence of a people person. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Katayoon—who has tutored students with learning disabilities in physics and chemistry, volunteered to visit with cardiology patients at St. Paul’s Hospital, and oriented new immigrants to life in Vancouver—as doing anything professionally that somehow wasn’t connected with people. And yet that’s exactly what she was doing during a 2004 internship in a UBC Botany Department lab. At the time, Katayoon was a B.Sc. candidate in the UBC Department of Zoology’s Cell Biology and Genetics program, a field she’d entered after immigrating to Canada from her native Iran. Though the lab work was interesting, it wasn’t quite right because, as she notes, “I always wanted to be one step closer to working with humans.”
That “one step closer” was to come in the form of a summer internship at the Terry Fox Laboratories, where she did wet lab research on mice, conducting stem cell analysis designed to improve leukemia treatments. Here she was engaged in research that had a more tangible, human-centred focus and she found the BC Cancer Agency that houses the labs an exciting place to work. Still and all, the work itself often was full of frustrations, involving lengthy waits due to complications with data setup and collection and sample contamination. Further Katayoon found herself wondering about her ultimate career goals. She knew that staying with that level of lab work wouldn’t be rewarding, but in what other directions were her skills and experiences pointing?
At that point Katayoon heard of the BCS program in the UBC Department of Computer Science. Initially she was nervous. After all, she had limited experience with computers beyond email and surfing the web. Her friends were skeptical, too, wondering why she would be interested in a second bachelor’s degree when she could be looking toward a graduate program. Despite these concerns, she strongly suspected that the emerging field of bioinformatics would give her flexible options for research work in the future. And if she were to do research in bioinformatics she would need to learn a good deal about computing. In 2005 she took the plunge and began the program.
She was hooked from the start. For one, Katayoon was accustomed to taking biology classes with 500 other students, but in the BCS program, a class size of 20 wasn’t unusual. Despite her initial reservations, she also found she loved computer science. As an example, she was amazed that a hardware course she took was so exciting, noting that it’s “kind of sad that I write code now and don’t have anything to do with hardware at all!” The structure of the program and how students learn within it was also stimulating and different. “With biology, you sit by yourself and study alone, and maybe you do a lot of memorizing for a few days before a test. The work for these classes was more constant and ongoing. Particularly for my algorithms and programming courses we sat together as a group and did a lot of brainstorming.”
And despite the fact that she had no c/s experience, these sessions weren’t intimidating at all. “The energy in these groups was incredible. We had people who’d been English majors, who’d already taught university courses, people from Commerce, a whole range of fields. And they were more mature, more focused. They say you go to university to ‘learn how to learn,’ and my classmates already knew how to learn. And in terms of the subject matter, I didn’t find it intimidating. Yes, there were some people who knew a lot about programming, but there were plenty of people like me who didn’t.”
Some of the excitement she found in these courses she chalks up to her professors, who, she notes, were “just amazing.” Professors were generally willing to provide generous office hours, which she found particularly helpful in tougher courses such as algorithms and machine learning.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the BCS program was participating in the co-op program. Katayoon did two co-op placements during the program. For the first she was placed at the Genome Sciences Centre (GSC) at the BC Cancer Agency, working as an annotator for the open source database the agency maintains. “And for me,” she says, “this was magical. It really clicked with me.” The connection between Katayoon’s scientific skills and her desire to help people was becoming even stronger, as she found herself part of a dedicated team of 280 researchers and support staff working tirelessly to understand the genomic underpinnings of cancer and thus to develop effective cancer treatments.
After returning to UBC and taking several courses including a directed studies course she once again signed up for co-op and again returned to the GSC. This time she helped develop software to improve the “computationally intensive” task of aligning a patient’s tumour cell DNA and his or her normal tissue sample to the human reference genome’s three billion DNA base pairs. By this point she knew she was doing the kind of work she was meant to do at the kind of place in which she was meant to do it. “The Genomic Sciences Centre is such an incredible place. They’re a relatively small group, but they’re the biggest sequencing centre in Canada and in the top 10 in North America. They were the first to sequence the SARS virus when it first broke out. And it’s partly because of them that British Columbia is said to have the best five-year survival rate for breast cancer and the best one- and five-year survival rates for ovarian cancer. There’s a really tight link between physicians and cancer researchers here in Vancouver and it makes a huge difference in outcomes.”
If it’s clear Katayoon found good people with whom to work, it’s also clear they found an incredible colleague in her. One day her research advisor at the centre, Dr. Steven Jones, asked her for the umpteenth time if she would consider enrolling in a Ph.D. program. Almost offhandedly she said she’d been thinking about personalized medicine, the growing, though still largely theoretical, medical sub-field in which doctors can craft a treatment protocol for an individual patient given the patient’s genetic makeup. “He immediately jumped up and went to his office and got a manuscript for me to read.” The manuscript told the remarkable story of a patient who’d contracted such a rare form of cancer that the patient’s doctors were at a complete loss. They contacted the GCS, which then set about sequencing both the patient’s tumour cells and normal cells. Once the sequencing was complete, researchers were able to analyze the differences between the two data sets and craft a specific therapy regimen. According to Kasaian, “the before and after scans of the tumour were incredible. One showed growth in the tumor’s size by 16% in just one month and the other showed a size shrinkage of about 22% and no new tumors.” Reading that paper convinced her that research in personalized medicine really would be her ideal career and so the next step was obvious. Today she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Bioinformatics program of the College for Interdisciplinary Studies at UBC. No longer a person who just “emails and surfs the web,” Katayoon is a computer scientist with an exciting future full of specialized research opportunities that will allow her to make a real difference in people’s lives. For a science-oriented people person, it doesn’t get much better than that!