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Graduate follow‑up: PhD's research earns him national award

Posted by Cory Burris on September 6, 2016 in News
Pharmacology grad Robert Laprairie. (Tom Brodigan photo)
Pharmacology grad Robert Laprairie. (Tom Brodigan photo)

Only a couple of months have passed since spring convocation, but it doesn’t take long for graduates to plot their next course in the world. Whether it’s enrolling in further training or moving into the workforce, graduates share the thrill of embarking on something new and exciting.

For Robert Laprairie, a recent pharmacology PhD grad, that thrill began in his final weeks at Dalhousie when he was named the top pick in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) fellowship program. The award goes to highly qualified candidates to continue health research in Canada or abroad.

“I was completely ecstatic,” says Laprairie. “Winning that fellowship, let alone being ranked number one, represents an affirmation of my current research direction and the success I’ve attained working at Dalhousie.”

Picking the right path

Before coming to Dalhousie, Laprairie had already done pharmacology-related work at the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and toxicology research at Agri-food and Agriculture Canada. That exposure confirmed he wanted a career in pharmacology. When he went looking for a masters program to apply to, he came across Dr. Eileen Denovan-Wright, a professor at Dalhousie, and her lab in the Department of Pharmacology.

“When I reached out to Dr. Denovan-Wright, it was clear to me that I would receive excellent training and mentorship from her during my graduate work,” says Laprairie. “I also knew I’d be given the freedom to develop an independent project based on our mutual research interests.”

Laprairie stayed in the department for five years, completing a masters and a PhD under Dr. Denovan-Wright’s supervision. His peers and department members noted his abilities as a professional scientist, learner, and his convergence on departmental research interests; his research focused on the structure, function, and pharmacology of type 1 cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Specifically, Laprairie was interested in the role cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoid system play in Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease.

“Patients with this disorder have very limited options for management of its devastating symptoms,” says Dr. Chris McMaster, head of the Department of Pharmacology. “Robert’s work provided evidence for new approaches and compounds for the disease.”

Developing skills for success

“Dr. Denovan-Wright and the department were extremely supportive of my research pursuits and communicating our science,” says Laprairie. “Presenting at departmental research days, participating in campus workshops for graduate students, and competing in Dalhousie’s Three Minute Thesis competition were highlights for me.”

Laprairie’s research took him off campus as well; he was accepted to present at over 15 international research conferences. He says communicating research in a direct and intelligible manner to an audience is a challenge, but provides important opportunities to receive critiques and criticisms.

This practice honed his skills as a researcher—both at the bench and with the wider scientific community—and as it turns out, resulted in a job offer.

“I was presenting some of my PhD work at the Experimental Biology Conference in Boston in 2015 and was approached by Dr. Laura Bohn, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute in Florida,” says Laprairie. “She was impressed by my research and invited me to give a full seminar there as part of a formal interview.”

Needless to say, the interview went well. Laprairie was offered a position at Scripps and shortly after began working on his application for the CIHR fellowship program. He says receiving the number one rank in the program was the icing on a very large cake.

“The most important part of any training program is your relationship with your supervisor and mentors. My advice to those entering a PhD program is to have open and honest conversations with perspective and current supervisors and mentors about goals, troubles, and your success. Working collaboratively will help you succeed."