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Putting her heart into pharmacology

Posted by Erin Casey on October 6, 2014 in News
Fall 2014 graduate, Randi Parks. (Danny Abriel photo)
Fall 2014 graduate, Randi Parks. (Danny Abriel photo)

When Randi Parks chose Dalhousie for her PhD in pharmacology, she never imagined she would find the supportive academic community she craved and accomplish so much in a few short years.

“I chose Dal from the beginning because I knew it had a really good reputation for health research,” she says. “The Department of Pharmacology and the Faculty of Medicine as a whole were amazing, so supportive, with a really collaborative atmosphere.”

By the time she defended her PhD thesis, Randi had published five papers and eight abstracts, presented at many conferences, and been invited to speak at numerous symposiums and institutions. She was awarded the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation MacDonald Graduate Scholarship and a Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation Scotia Scholarship. She received the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Nova Scotia BrightRed Graduate Student Research Award, in addition to several other bursaries and honours. She has also engaged in several teaching and tutoring opportunities, including work as a problem-based learning tutor at Dalhousie’s College of Pharmacy.

Randi’s thesis research, supervised by Dr. Susan Howlett, examined differences in heart function between male and female mice. “I was looking at individual heart muscle cells,” she explains. “The collection of these cells contracting causes the heartbeat, but a single cell can still be stimulated to beat. Female cells did not beat as forcefully, so we can extrapolate from that how it affects whole heart function.”

A sense of “neighbourliness”

Grad students work long, intense hours every day, but the collegial atmosphere in the Department of Pharmacology eased the pressure. “It wasn’t competitive—all the students formed good friendships, which carries into the research and science,” Randi says.

This feeling of what she calls “Atlantic Canadian neighbourliness” extended into groups like the Cardiovascular Research Group, a forum for basic researchers at Dal to connect with clinical researchers and physicians who are actually seeing patients. The weekly Cardiovascular Journal Club was an extension of that work, a place for cardiac researchers from across departments within the Faculty of Medicine to meet and share information. “By meeting every week, and committing to that collaboration, we learn things we couldn’t otherwise,” says Randi.

Randi’s time at Dalhousie was critical to developing her confidence and self-assurance. “When I first started, I knew I liked science and research, but I lacked the confidence to just jump in and try anything. My supervisor likes to joke about comparing the first talk I gave with the talks I give today. I’ve learned a lot, and my department and faculty have really helped shape me into a competent researcher. I’m not afraid to ask questions if I don’t understand, I’ve learned to put things in simple terms so others can understand, and I just go for what I want.”

Randi earned her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry at the University of New Brunswick. Living with her parents in Fredericton allowed her to focus exclusively on her studies. Both she and her younger brother, now a medical student at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick in Saint John, developed a passion for the health professions: “My parents are very hard-working people,” she says, “and our job was to go to school and get good grades.”

In October, Randi is off to Bethesda, Maryland, to start her tenure as visiting postdoctoral fellow in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “I hope it’s half as good as Dal has been!” she says. After that, she hopes to take a faculty position. “I want to play a role in shaping the future of research in my field.”

This article is part of a series on our newest graduates. These profiles are also published in the 2014 Fall Convocation Keepsake, which is distributed at Convocation ceremonies. For more on Convocation (including live webcasts), visit the Convocation website.