Violetta Cohen

Email: viola.cohen@ubc.ca


 

“BRING THE PATIENT IN!” the doctor shouts as the gurney rattles over the threshold into the emergency room. This was the scene Govind Deol presented to his second-grade teacher when asked to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“From my very first memory, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” the UBC Okanagan undergraduate student says with a contagious smile. “My parents have always encouraged me to be whatever I want to be, and this is the path I’ve felt was right for me since I was a young student.”

Fast forward to 2020, when Deol was one of a handful of elite high school students to receive a coveted Loran Scholarship. The selection process is rigorous; recipients of the award demonstrate exceptional character and excellence in service and leadership, as well as a commitment to academic success.

“Having the goal of becoming a doctor is one of the reasons I’ve pushed forward in terms of academics. I love learning and I love going to school, but knowing where I want to be has kept me motivated and reminds me to get up and keep going, even when I fall back.”

In elementary school, Deol found himself behind the rest of the class after a two-month trip abroad for a family member’s wedding. “When I came back, all the children in the class were reading books and putting words together and I wasn’t able to do that. My mom and I would sit down after school and study together so I could get caught up. My dad and I spent a lot of time focusing on math, and I found that it was something that became really fun. In terms of inspiring my passion for learning—it was definitely my parents.”

When Deol talks about his family, his studies and his involvement in the community, passion is a word that comes up often. “In terms of leading my life, I’ve learned to ask myself, ‘what am I passionate about?’ That’s what I want to do.”

“Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

A few of his passions include working with children and basketball, two catalysts of fervour he was able to combine with a basketball program he started while in high school. “Seeing the children having fun and staying out of trouble, along with the heart they played with, made me feel good.

“Volunteering started as a way for me to build a good resume for myself, but I saw it making a difference. Now I think: ‘if this helps me out in the future that’s great—but it has to be about working with people to make a difference.’”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited his in-person volunteer opportunities, Deol hasn’t been one to rest on his laurels. He’s active in a youth council run by his local Member of Parliament, advocating for mental health and other issues concerning youth in his hometown of Surrey, BC. “I’m learning more about my community and what’s being done to help people and how I can get involved.”

Deol is also a champion of the Sikhi Awareness Foundation, where he’s volunteered since high school. “They build schools, temples and playgrounds in India,” he says. “There are many sponsors in the lower mainland, but I have a lot of ideas on how I can help it expand into the Okanagan.”

As a requirement of the Loran scholarship, Deol had to decide on a university located outside his home region. “Surrey is a big city, but it’s also a close-knit community like Kelowna. I saw going to UBCO as a way I could similarly continue my community work, but keep growing as a person.”

Like many, Deol found himself on UBC Okanagan’s campus for the first time this fall as he entered his second year of studies during the coronavirus pandemic—and he already has his priorities mapped.

“University is a lot different than high school, and in-person will be a lot different than online. For me, it’s important to understand the culture first. What does the community value? How do things work? Where can I fit in here to help make a difference?”

Deol says he’s more excited than nervous about being on campus, as the thing he missed most doing his first year online was the interpersonal connection. “I’m really looking forward to talking to as many people as possible and making a lot of new friends.”

When asked if he has any advice for his peers, Deol says, “Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

“BRING THE PATIENT IN!” the doctor shouts as the gurney rattles over the threshold into the emergency room. This was the scene Govind Deol presented to his second-grade teacher when asked to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“From my very first memory, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” the UBC Okanagan undergraduate student says with a contagious smile. “My parents have always encouraged me to be whatever I want to be, and this is the path I’ve felt was right for me since I was a young student.”

Fast forward to 2020, when Deol was one of a handful of elite high school students to receive a coveted Loran Scholarship. The selection process is rigorous; recipients of the award demonstrate exceptional character and excellence in service and leadership, as well as a commitment to academic success.

“Having the goal of becoming a doctor is one of the reasons I’ve pushed forward in terms of academics. I love learning and I love going to school, but knowing where I want to be has kept me motivated and reminds me to get up and keep going, even when I fall back.”

In elementary school, Deol found himself behind the rest of the class after a two-month trip abroad for a family member’s wedding. “When I came back, all the children in the class were reading books and putting words together and I wasn’t able to do that. My mom and I would sit down after school and study together so I could get caught up. My dad and I spent a lot of time focusing on math, and I found that it was something that became really fun. In terms of inspiring my passion for learning—it was definitely my parents.”

When Deol talks about his family, his studies and his involvement in the community, passion is a word that comes up often. “In terms of leading my life, I’ve learned to ask myself, ‘what am I passionate about?’ That’s what I want to do.”

“Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

A few of his passions include working with children and basketball, two catalysts of fervour he was able to combine with a basketball program he started while in high school. “Seeing the children having fun and staying out of trouble, along with the heart they played with, made me feel good.

“Volunteering started as a way for me to build a good resume for myself, but I saw it making a difference. Now I think: ‘if this helps me out in the future that’s great—but it has to be about working with people to make a difference.’”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited his in-person volunteer opportunities, Deol hasn’t been one to rest on his laurels. He’s active in a youth council run by his local Member of Parliament, advocating for mental health and other issues concerning youth in his hometown of Surrey, BC. “I’m learning more about my community and what’s being done to help people and how I can get involved.”

Deol is also a champion of the Sikhi Awareness Foundation, where he’s volunteered since high school. “They build schools, temples and playgrounds in India,” he says. “There are many sponsors in the lower mainland, but I have a lot of ideas on how I can help it expand into the Okanagan.”

As a requirement of the Loran scholarship, Deol had to decide on a university located outside his home region. “Surrey is a big city, but it’s also a close-knit community like Kelowna. I saw going to UBCO as a way I could similarly continue my community work, but keep growing as a person.”

Like many, Deol found himself on UBC Okanagan’s campus for the first time this fall as he entered his second year of studies during the coronavirus pandemic—and he already has his priorities mapped.

“University is a lot different than high school, and in-person will be a lot different than online. For me, it’s important to understand the culture first. What does the community value? How do things work? Where can I fit in here to help make a difference?”

Deol says he’s more excited than nervous about being on campus, as the thing he missed most doing his first year online was the interpersonal connection. “I’m really looking forward to talking to as many people as possible and making a lot of new friends.”

When asked if he has any advice for his peers, Deol says, “Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

DR. THU-THUY DANG HAS UNDERSTOOD THE POWER OF PLANTS since she was a little girl. Growing up in Vietnam, Dr. Dang’s parents taught her a lot about the connection between nature and medicine. And although she mostly used the modern, scientifically proven medicines that became more available as she got older, she never lost sight of what she learned as a child.

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang.

“We consumed a lot of plant products,” she recalls. “Some we consumed for traditional purposes, some for faith-based reasons and others for their healing capabilities. I always thought they were a bit mysterious, but I was told I had to take them because they were good for me and would help my body ward off illness.

“We all used them. My father was a soldier in the Vietnam War and he would sometimes have to take quinine, which is derived from the cinchona tree, to treat malaria. It’s actually still used in many places across the globe, including Canada.”

Though her family and those around her used many herbal remedies, Dr. Dang found it strange that most of them never really understood how they worked, or even if they worked. They also had little understanding of how different plants made different sets of chemicals. Her curiosity and passion for nature ultimately led her to an undergraduate degree in biotechnology at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Her degree provided her with a holistic understanding of the biotech industry. Dr. Dang studied everything from plant biochemistry to product development, but it wasn’t until she arrived in Canada that she realized how many different paths and opportunities were available to those interested in a career in medicinal plant research.

Graduate school in Canada

While working on a master’s project on plant development and physiology at the University of Calgary, Dr. Dang noticed something interesting going on in the lab next door.

“The plant scientists there didn’t work like traditional botanists, who generally focus on morphology, growth and development, horticulture or taxonomy,” she says. “These researchers were physically chopping up the plants and looking into their genetic materials to try and understand how to make important compounds. Their ultimate goal was to understand and mimic the process to make the same compounds themselves before the natural resource gets exhausted.”

Dr. Dang was intrigued and shifted her focus to this area of inquiry when starting her doctorate. “The fact that plants are such wonderful chemists and have made these compounds naturally for millions of years is so cool to me.

“Morphine from the opium poppy, for example, is not only a powerful painkiller but also a very addictive chemical. The British and Qing Empires went to war because of it, and millions of people around the world today either reap its benefits or suffer from using it,” she adds.

Dr. Dang says whether the public realizes or not, many medicines originate from natural resource compounds or components.

“Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible.”

“We obtain natural rubber from the rubber tree, the anti-cancer drug vinblastine from Madagascar periwinkle, and aspirin—the most commonly used drug in the world—is synthesized from a component of the willow tree.”

Dr. Dang explains that for nearly 200 years, chemists have been trying to mimic plants’ processes, and, even today, only a few of such processes are understood well enough to be fully re-constituted.

“I liked that it was a challenging field. With the golden era of the next generation of genetic sequencing on the horizon during my PhD—meaning researchers were beginning to sequence the genetic materials of plants at an ever-increasing speed—the timing couldn’t have been better.”

Dr. Dang found success early in her research with a compound called noscapine, which originates in opium poppies and is believed to have cough suppression and anti-cancer properties. During her doctoral studies, Dr. Dang and her colleagues were able to reveal how opium poppies produced noscapine. Their findings were employed by other members of the scientific community who then placed all of the enzymes into a baking yeast that ultimately made noscapine.

“It was a good confidence booster for sure,” recalls Dr. Dang. “Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible. It was rewarding to meet that goal.”

Establishing herself in the Okanagan

Dr. Dang was then awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) to continue her research on plant natural products at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. This and previous research experience helped Dr. Dang land her role as an assistant professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science.

Dr. Dang’s lab—the Plant Bioactive Compounds Research Laboratory—opened in January 2019. There, she and students integrate biochemistry, chemistry, bioinformatics and molecular genetics to reveal and engineer the biosynthesis of valuable small molecules from medicinal plants. Their goal is to learn and translate natural metabolism into innovative biotechnologies to meet the ever-increasing demands of high-value chemicals.

Close up of leaves

Happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata), currently thriving at the new UBC plant growth facility, produces camptothecin, a precursor to clinically important chemotherapy drugs such as topotecan and irinotecan.

“About 60 per cent of the medicinal drugs we use in Canada and around the world are derived from natural plant products, bacteria or fungi, so we’re working to understand how these organisms produce these compounds. It’s a very complicated process to build complex molecules from simple ingredients such as sugar and amino acids.”

Recently, Dr. Dang was awarded the Michael Smith Foundation Scholar Award, valued at $450,000 over five years, for her lab to investigate plant-based anti-cancer drugs. These include clinically important compounds like topotecan and irinotecan, derived from camptothecin, found in the Chinese happy tree (also known as Camptotheca acuminata).

They have recently filed a provisional patent on the use of biocatalysts to manufacture clinically important anticancer drugs with the support of the University Industry Liaison Office.

Funding from different organizations such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Foundation for Innovation, BC Knowledge Development Fund and UBC will also support the lab’s long-term efforts. These are focused on using synthetic biology approaches to scale up production of compounds that show potential effects on living matter, such as anti-cancer drugs.

Looking ahead

Now settled with her husband and two daughters in the Okanagan, Dr. Dang is excited for what the future holds—both personally and professionally.

“I visited Kelowna before relocating, so I knew of its natural beauty and of course the wonderful wines,” says Dr. Dang. “It actually reminds me a lot of my hometown, Da Lat in Vietnam. A lot of people think of Vietnam as a hot, tropical country but I was born in a mountain town. We had evergreen trees and a lake in the middle of the city, so the similarities are quite striking. It really feels like home and we’re so grateful to be living here and to be supported by our colleagues and the close-knit community at UBC Okanagan.”

Dr. Dang is also thriving professionally, and has somehow found the time to consider future endeavours.

“We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

In my lab, we conduct research to better understand the world of medicinal plants around us, but more importantly, we hope to eventually harness this knowledge to contribute to the accessibility of important pharmaceutical compounds. We would like to make that link more visible to our community members,” she says.

“I already started with some outreach efforts by engaging with elementary students at my daughter’s school and hopefully will be able to join my colleagues’ public engagement with the wider community down the road. We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

Despite her numerous successes, Dr. Dang is not one to count her accomplishments.

“I’ve never really thought of my work as an accomplishment, just a stepping stone to get to my next goal,” she says. “But I’m proud of the work we have done, I’m proud to be a woman of a visible minority in this field, and I hope my story encourages people from all backgrounds to pursue STEM.”

DR. THU-THUY DANG HAS UNDERSTOOD THE POWER OF PLANTS since she was a little girl. Growing up in Vietnam, Dr. Dang’s parents taught her a lot about the connection between nature and medicine. And although she mostly used the modern, scientifically proven medicines that became more available as she got older, she never lost sight of what she learned as a child.

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang.

“We consumed a lot of plant products,” she recalls. “Some we consumed for traditional purposes, some for faith-based reasons and others for their healing capabilities. I always thought they were a bit mysterious, but I was told I had to take them because they were good for me and would help my body ward off illness.

“We all used them. My father was a soldier in the Vietnam War and he would sometimes have to take quinine, which is derived from the cinchona tree, to treat malaria. It’s actually still used in many places across the globe, including Canada.”

Though her family and those around her used many herbal remedies, Dr. Dang found it strange that most of them never really understood how they worked, or even if they worked. They also had little understanding of how different plants made different sets of chemicals. Her curiosity and passion for nature ultimately led her to an undergraduate degree in biotechnology at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Her degree provided her with a holistic understanding of the biotech industry. Dr. Dang studied everything from plant biochemistry to product development, but it wasn’t until she arrived in Canada that she realized how many different paths and opportunities were available to those interested in a career in medicinal plant research.

Graduate school in Canada

While working on a master’s project on plant development and physiology at the University of Calgary, Dr. Dang noticed something interesting going on in the lab next door.

“The plant scientists there didn’t work like traditional botanists, who generally focus on morphology, growth and development, horticulture or taxonomy,” she says. “These researchers were physically chopping up the plants and looking into their genetic materials to try and understand how to make important compounds. Their ultimate goal was to understand and mimic the process to make the same compounds themselves before the natural resource gets exhausted.”

Dr. Dang was intrigued and shifted her focus to this area of inquiry when starting her doctorate. “The fact that plants are such wonderful chemists and have made these compounds naturally for millions of years is so cool to me.

“Morphine from the opium poppy, for example, is not only a powerful painkiller but also a very addictive chemical. The British and Qing Empires went to war because of it, and millions of people around the world today either reap its benefits or suffer from using it,” she adds.

Dr. Dang says whether the public realizes or not, many medicines originate from natural resource compounds or components.

“Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible.”

“We obtain natural rubber from the rubber tree, the anti-cancer drug vinblastine from Madagascar periwinkle, and aspirin—the most commonly used drug in the world—is synthesized from a component of the willow tree.”

Dr. Dang explains that for nearly 200 years, chemists have been trying to mimic plants’ processes, and, even today, only a few of such processes are understood well enough to be fully re-constituted.

“I liked that it was a challenging field. With the golden era of the next generation of genetic sequencing on the horizon during my PhD—meaning researchers were beginning to sequence the genetic materials of plants at an ever-increasing speed—the timing couldn’t have been better.”

Dr. Dang found success early in her research with a compound called noscapine, which originates in opium poppies and is believed to have cough suppression and anti-cancer properties. During her doctoral studies, Dr. Dang and her colleagues were able to reveal how opium poppies produced noscapine. Their findings were employed by other members of the scientific community who then placed all of the enzymes into a baking yeast that ultimately made noscapine.

“It was a good confidence booster for sure,” recalls Dr. Dang. “Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible. It was rewarding to meet that goal.”

Establishing herself in the Okanagan

Dr. Dang was then awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) to continue her research on plant natural products at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. This and previous research experience helped Dr. Dang land her role as an assistant professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science.

Dr. Dang’s lab—the Plant Bioactive Compounds Research Laboratory—opened in January 2019. There, she and students integrate biochemistry, chemistry, bioinformatics and molecular genetics to reveal and engineer the biosynthesis of valuable small molecules from medicinal plants. Their goal is to learn and translate natural metabolism into innovative biotechnologies to meet the ever-increasing demands of high-value chemicals.

Close up of leaves

Happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata), currently thriving at the new UBC plant growth facility, produces camptothecin, a precursor to clinically important chemotherapy drugs such as topotecan and irinotecan.

“About 60 per cent of the medicinal drugs we use in Canada and around the world are derived from natural plant products, bacteria or fungi, so we’re working to understand how these organisms produce these compounds. It’s a very complicated process to build complex molecules from simple ingredients such as sugar and amino acids.”

Recently, Dr. Dang was awarded the Michael Smith Foundation Scholar Award, valued at $450,000 over five years, for her lab to investigate plant-based anti-cancer drugs. These include clinically important compounds like topotecan and irinotecan, derived from camptothecin, found in the Chinese happy tree (also known as Camptotheca acuminata).

They have recently filed a provisional patent on the use of biocatalysts to manufacture clinically important anticancer drugs with the support of the University Industry Liaison Office.

Funding from different organizations such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Foundation for Innovation, BC Knowledge Development Fund and UBC will also support the lab’s long-term efforts. These are focused on using synthetic biology approaches to scale up production of compounds that show potential effects on living matter, such as anti-cancer drugs.

Looking ahead

Now settled with her husband and two daughters in the Okanagan, Dr. Dang is excited for what the future holds—both personally and professionally.

“I visited Kelowna before relocating, so I knew of its natural beauty and of course the wonderful wines,” says Dr. Dang. “It actually reminds me a lot of my hometown, Da Lat in Vietnam. A lot of people think of Vietnam as a hot, tropical country but I was born in a mountain town. We had evergreen trees and a lake in the middle of the city, so the similarities are quite striking. It really feels like home and we’re so grateful to be living here and to be supported by our colleagues and the close-knit community at UBC Okanagan.”

Dr. Dang is also thriving professionally, and has somehow found the time to consider future endeavours.

“We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

In my lab, we conduct research to better understand the world of medicinal plants around us, but more importantly, we hope to eventually harness this knowledge to contribute to the accessibility of important pharmaceutical compounds. We would like to make that link more visible to our community members,” she says.

“I already started with some outreach efforts by engaging with elementary students at my daughter’s school and hopefully will be able to join my colleagues’ public engagement with the wider community down the road. We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

Despite her numerous successes, Dr. Dang is not one to count her accomplishments.

“I’ve never really thought of my work as an accomplishment, just a stepping stone to get to my next goal,” she says. “But I’m proud of the work we have done, I’m proud to be a woman of a visible minority in this field, and I hope my story encourages people from all backgrounds to pursue STEM.”

Researchers are evaluating how environmental factors like diet influence gut health, and whether innovative solutions can alter inflammatory bowel disease's susceptibility