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(PRESS RELEASE) — On Thursday, June 13, St. Lucian national Lisa-Monique Edward graduated from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
This ceremony marked her completion of a bachelor of medical sciences degree with an honours pecialization in computational biochemistry. On that day, Ms. Edward was also presented with the 2019 Rossiter Award for research excellence. The Rossiter Award is one of the most prestigious awards conferred by the University’s Department of Biochemistry and recognizes one student annually for excellence in the Biochemistry Thesis Research Project.
Ms. Edward’s research project was titled, “Application of a Novel Visualization Tool to Assess Diversity in Next-Generation Sequence Data”. In this project, she implemented a data visualization system in the R statistical programming language that enables users to view a concise summary of the genetic diversity in next-generation sequence (NGS) data sets.
Her project supervisor, Dr. Art Poon, enthusiastically recalled that she “progressed through the development tasks much faster than [he] had anticipated and [he] soon needed to extend her project”. Therefore, to conclude her project, she went on to obtain Ugandan and Zimbabwean patients’ HIV-1 NGS data from collaborating research groups and analyzed those samples using her system.
These achievements come as no surprise, given Ms. Edward’s extensive record of academic achievement which spans over a decade and includes national, regional and international awards.
In 2008, Ms. Edward was the island’s top national scholar in the Common Entrance Examinations. Following this, she attended the St. Joseph’s Convent Secondary School where she followed a pure science curriculum including biology, chemistry, and physics. However, to ensure she explored and nurtured her other interests which included visual arts, economics, and food and nutrition, she completed a total of 10 subjects. She was extremely successful in all of her chosen areas during the 2013 CSEC examinations, achieving nine Grade Is and one Grade II. She was further recognized at the St Joseph’s Convent’s annual awards ceremony where she was presented with two awards for outstanding academic achievement, an extracurricular award for her service as the captain of the SJC Steel Pan Orchestra, and an award for her contribution to SJC life for her extraordinary involvement during her time at the institution.
However, this was still only the early stages of Ms. Edward’s successes. Following her schooling at the St. Joseph’s Convent (SJC), she went on to attend the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC) where she studied biology, chemistry, and pure mathematics. She completed the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE), once again obtaining Grade I’s and II’s. In 2015, she graduated from SALCC with a 3.9 GPA and was also awarded an associate’s degree in natural sciences.
Subsequent to this, Ms. Edward joined the Ezra Long Laboratory at Victoria Hospital for one year. During her time there, she began a project in collaboration with the Ministry of Health in which she developed a database which served as the island’s first National Cancer Register. She retrospectively populated and maintained this database using data she personally collected from Victoria Hospital, Tapion Hospital, and St Jude’s Hospital. This work allowed for important patterns in cancer diagnoses, patient demographics, treatment outcomes, and disease mortality to be revealed, and laid the foundation for future projects within the Ministry of Health.
Despite this important work, Ms. Edward never lost sight of her goal of returning to tertiary education. During this gap year, she learned of the interdisciplinary fields of bioinformatics and computational biology and became deeply intrigued.
Bioinformatics refers to the development of methods and tools for the storage, organization, and analysis of biological data. At its most basic, this includes the development of databases such as the Cancer Register Project. However, the true power of bioinformatics lies in computational biology which is the utilization of bioinformatics tools to perform computational analyses, mathematical modelling and the simulation of biological data in order to make new predictions or discover new biology. Unfortunately, up until this point in her education, Ms. Edward had not been exposed to computer science, and therefore could not be sure if this was the right path for her. During this gap year, she, therefore, decided to complete online courses from Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego and these experiences are what solidified her desire to pursue the field.
In 2016, she applied and was accepted to the University of Western Ontario (Western University) in Canada. Most exceptionally, she was also one of only three students selected to receive the International President’s Entrance Scholarship, a CAD$50,000 award. She was selected from a pool of over 700 applicants from around the world and is the first St. Lucian to be awarded this scholarship. She was also one of only 50 students out of more than 5,000 incoming undergraduates invited to join the “Scholars’ Electives” Honors module, which is a research-intensive, interdisciplinary-learning program which runs concurrently with academics.
Further, in 2018, she was named as one of 15 recipients in the North American region of the Google Generation Scholarship, an award that recognizes computer science students for academic excellence, exceptional leadership and their impact on diversity in their community.
In 2018 she was also one of eight recipients of the OAS Undergraduate Caribbean Scholarship, bringing her scholarship total to over XCD$150,000.
Honours programs at Western University, much like most other North American institutions, are four years in duration. However, after completing extra courses in every semester of her program, she graduated on June 13, 2019 with a 3.9 GPA — one full year ahead of schedule.
During her time at the university, Ms. Edward was named on the Dean’s List in every term and at graduation, she was distinguished as graduating with distinction due to achieving an overall ‘A’ average with no course grade below 70% in her entire program. She also completed four distinct independent research projects; presented two research posters and was named as an author on two research articles which are currently under review by high-impact, peer-reviewed journals.
Ms. Edward also applied and was accepted to participate in multiple hackathons (collaborative software-development events) during her undergraduate career. These included: HackWestern (at Western University) and HackMIT (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). She also went on to help organize two hackathons: SheHacks, an all-women’s hackathon hosted at Western University; and MedHacks, a medical and biotech hackathon hosted at John’s Hopkins University.
In spite of all of this, she also found the time to work part-time as the web designer for the University’s Faculty of Science and to serve as the VP communications of the Women in Technology Society and as the artistic director and then editor-in-chief of the Scholars Publications House.
Ms. Edward plans to accept a full-time research position, beginning in August 2019, at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, Canada where she will be joining one of the leading research groups in the field using bioinformatics and computational biology to study and treat pediatric cancer. Following this, she plans to return to academia to complete an M.D./Ph.D. dual doctoral program with the goal of becoming a practicing clinician-scientist fighting cancer using true bench-to-bedside research.
“I am deeply passionate about the study of cancer,” she says, “as this disease has and continues to affect and take the lives of family members, friends and even strangers around me.”
Ultimately, she plans to return to her homeland where she believes that her unique interdisciplinary mindset will have a significant impact on the fight against cancer and, hopefully, on the lives of others.