Grad Diaries: The art behind the chemistry

“Atoms are building blocks which we connect to make molecules. Molecules can then be designed to fit into certain shapes that provide a greater purpose in different systems,” says Rebecca Allan. As a PhD student in the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), her research focuses on medicinal chemistry and drug discovery. 

Allan works in Professor Patrick Gunning’s laboratory: The Gunning Group. Her project consists of designing, synthesizing, and analyzing potential new small molecule ligands—molecules that bind to other protein molecules—to combat fusion proteins implicated in rare diseases. “I have chosen to direct my focus on a rare liver cancer which primarily affects patients in their 20s to 30s,” explains Allan. “Unfortunately, these patients have a terrible prognosis partly due to a high risk of reoccurrence of the tumor.”

Currently, Allan works alongside other students in the Gunning Group to identify a library of ligands. Their project has been successful, which has led to the development of an extension company named SciVance, its name being a combination of the words “science” and “advance.” The main goal of SciVance is to secure sufficient funding to file a patent for the foundation of the work created. Allan explains that “SciVance has been a fantastic learning experience for gaining knowledge in business fundamentals.” The company provides her with a large network of connections in the start-up and venture capital industries within Canada. 

Throughout her secondary education, Allan found that although chemistry was not her strongest subject, it was the most fascinating. To her, chemistry is both qualitative and quantitative in its theory, serving as a middle ground between mathematics, literature, and design. This infusion of different disciplines is what fueled Allan’s passion for chemistry. Designing small molecules every day provides her with a creative outlet alongside the ability to exercise her problem-solving.

Allan completed a four-year combined Master’s in Chemistry at Cardiff University in the UK. During her third year, she was exposed to laboratory research experience. She worked full-time in a lab at Cardiff while simultaneously completing other coursework in the evenings. 

In 2017, Allan worked as an exchange student at the Gunning Group at UTM. During this time, Allan expanded her knowledge in the medicinal chemistry field by working through the entire process of drug discovery. She enjoyed her work so much that she began her PhD in the same laboratory a year later.

Although research and SciVance consume much of her time, Allan makes sure to reserve time for extracurriculars on and off campus. One of Allan’s main on-campus involvements includes Max’s Big Ride—a charity focused on raising awareness for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). DMD is a rare, fatal condition most common in boys, that results in severe muscle weakness. Max’s Big Ride—founded by UTM staff member Andrew Sedmihradsky—raises money for research focusing on treatments for DMD, the disease that Sedmihradsky’s son Max suffers from. This also happens to be a prominent research project in the Gunning Group. Their research has been supported by Max’s Big Ride for the past five years. 

Annually, one graduate student is assigned the Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Fellowship—“Max’s Big Fellowship”—of which Rebecca held the title for the 2021-22 academic year. Allan has helped organized different events within Max’s Big Ride, including IDEAthon. IDEAthon is an annual interdisciplinary event that works to raise awareness for DMD by challenging students to find innovative methods to improve patients’ quality of life. 

Allan is also involved in the UTM Association for Graduate Students (UTMAGS) and attends many of their events alongside those hosted by the Chemical and Physical Sciences Graduate Student Association (CPSGSA). Allan has been the Social Director for UTMAGS for a few years. She vouches for involvement in CPSGSA on campus, as they provide great opportunities for meeting new people and connecting with students both inside and outside of one’s discipline. 

Off-campus, Allan is involved in Front Row Ventures—a student-run venture capital company that invests in student-led start-ups. “This has been a fantastic experience for learning what venture capital is like, and understanding what to look for in a company,” says Allan. Venture capital allows and encourages individuals to keep up to date with start-ups in their desired discipline. Meeting other entrepreneurs allows for further navigation and inspiration for the development of one’s own company. 

Allan explains that there are many other venture capital-related career paths, such as venture creation, which consists of working for a venture capital company to help design business ideas. She shares that an opportunity to explore her ideas alongside working in venture capital and creation would be the ideal situation for her in terms of a long-term plan.

Allan advises undergraduate students to “always try to be involved with as many opportunities as possible.” In addition, Allan explains that mentorship plays a prominent role in experiential learning. Although they may be challenging to find, mentors in various fields related to one’s desired subject will help guide an individual to their destined career path. “I don’t know what I would have done [without] mentors as they help you rationalize many steps along the process and are instrumental when deciding your career direction,” explains Allan. 

For fellow graduate students, Allan encourages students to think outside of the box and creatively about entrepreneurship. There are many amazing resources, accelerators, and pitch competitions that help expedite any business ideas one already has. There is no better time to run with an idea than as a student full of energy, passion, time, and a support system. Allan finishes, “When I asked a mentor recently when the best time to start a business is, they replied yesterday.”

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