Kimberly MacKay, bioinformatics Ph.D student, awarded Vanier Scholarship

Kimberly MacKay, Bioinformatics Ph.D student

Kimberly MacKay, a Bioinformatics PhD student, has been awarded the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, the country’s most prestigious and competitive federal scholarship for top-tier graduate students.

As a Vanier recipient, Kimberly has been awarded $150,000 over three years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). She plans to develop cutting-edge computer software—enabling scientists to unlock the secrets of cell nuclei. Kimberly is a PhD student in bioinformatics (a field combining biochemistry and computer science) and is creating computer software to model the structure and organization of chromosomes within cells—work that could have implications for everything from new treatments for diseases to better varieties of crops.

“Answering the questions Kim is pursuing will lead to significant advances in our fundamental understanding of how cells and genes work,” said Tony Kusalik, MacKay’s supervisor and bioinformatics program director. “For instance, where chromosomes are located within the cell nucleus seems to be critical to the control of genes on those chromosomes and could have a bearing on how genes are expressed in the body.”

He notes that if a cell's genetic material were stretched end-to-end, it would measure about two metres in length. For all this information to fit inside a cell's nucleus, the cell must extensively fold and make 3D figures out of the chromosomes, much like with origami. When chromosomes don’t fold properly, disease can occur. MacKay is interested in discovering what controls the folding and unfolding, as well as the effects of misfolding. Her work could enable scientists to better treat genetic disorders in animals and humans, such as cancer and the rapid aging disease known as progeria. In agriculture, a better understanding of the relationship between chromosomal organization and the regulation of plant genes could lead to more robust and dependable crop varieties.

MacKay is collaborating with Chris Eskiw, a U of S agriculture professor, who is providing data for her models from cell lines and doing experiments in the lab to verify the models generated.

“This federal investment helps us attract and retain outstanding young researchers who as Vanier Scholars develop the skills and capabilities to become future leaders in their fields,” said Karen Chad, U of S vice-president research.

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NSERC Announcement