Some questions and answers with University of Saskatchewan Ph.D student Kelly Summers

January 2019

Kelly Summers

Kelly SummersPhD Candidate from the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Canadian Society for Chemistry. Photo credit: Canadian Light Source.

Throughout 2019, the CIC joins the world in celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT 2019) and the 100th anniversary of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC 100). Among the projects that have been launched by IUPAC is the Periodic Table of Younger Chemists, which celebrates the diversity of talent in the chemical sciences. In the coming months we will be featuring those outstanding Younger Chemists who are part of the Canadian chemistry community and getting to know the people behind the achievements. First is Kelly Summers (copper, Cu), a PhD Candidate from the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Canadian Society for Chemistry, who is using synchrotron spectroscopy to investigate the role that metals play in Alzheimer’s disease.

Why chemistry?

That’s a good question! As I’ve collected my degrees, I have moved more towards biological inorganic chemistry. I find the idea of metals in biological systems and the amazing roles that metals play — in respiration, for example — fascinating.

What excites you most about your work?

The possibility of finding a reason behind human disease, learning a bit more about what might be changing in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease, and investigating how we might reverse or prevent these changes.

How has being in Canada helped shape your chemistry career?

I came to the University of Saskatchewan to pursue my PhD because of the proximity to the Canadian Light Source and the amazing opportunity that this facility provides to examine metals in biological systems. Throughout my degree, I have been generously supported by The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which has led to additional opportunities to study abroad and collaborate with researchers in Australia through NSERC’s Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement. I was able to attend both the 100th and 101st Canadian Chemistry Conferences and had the opportunity to present a talk about my research to the scientific community at the most recent conference in 2018 in Edmonton.

Do your activities extend beyond the usual bounds of chemistry?

There is a significant biological, human health component to my project that stretches beyond the typical bounds of chemistry. My research could be described as being at the boundary where biology, chemistry, and physics meet.  I use synchrotron techniques that are built on accelerator physics to study metals (chemistry) within biological systems (mainly the brain).

In terms of extra-curricular activities, teaching and helping other female scientists are also passions of mine. In 2016 I had the opportunity to act as a teaching assistant and mentor for a new collaborative course that brought together completely different disciplines (Chemistry and Classical, Medieval & Renaissance Studies) to use synchrotron techniques to examine ancient artifacts and coins. I have also helped organize a series of workshops for women in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research-funded Training in Health Research Using Synchrotron Techniques (THRUST) program at the University of Saskatchewan. We were hoping to create an environment of trust and help build confidence in the women of THRUST, as well as discuss issues women face in the sciences. We fairly quickly realized that there was a much larger need for such a group than we had initially thought. After the University of Toronto hosted the first successful Leaders Overcoming Gender Inequality in Chemistry (LOGIC) workshop, we began to put together our own Women in Chemistry group at the University of Saskatchewan in the summer of 2017. As I approach the end of my graduate degree, I have had less time to devote to these endeavours, but both initiatives have continued.

Have you ever received advice that you’d like to pass on to other young chemists?

When I was thinking of pursuing graduate research, a rather jaded senior Ph.D student told me that I should be careful to choose a topic that I was really passionate about so I didn't end up struggling to finish a degree on a topic I hated. At the time I thought everything seemed really interesting, so I didn't think that much about it. Now, looking back it seems like such great advice because I can't imagine finding motivation to spend long periods of time preparing samples, to stay up all night collecting data, or to write hundreds of pages on a topic I wasn't passionate about. I think I was very fortunate to choose a research area that I am very passionate about and that comes with built-in motivation: I could learn something that could help treat human disease. Almost every time I have presented my research, or even given my 'elevator speech' during an introduction, someone mentions that they have a family member or friend that has suffered from dementia and it reaffirms the importance of this type of research for me.

In celebration of IYPT 2019, do you have a favourite memory or fact about the periodic table?

My favourite memory involving the periodic table is probably making individual colour-coded cards for each of the elements on the periodic table in an attempt to memorize where all the elements go for an undergraduate class.