Di Hu U3 Anatomy and Cell Biology (Wendy Chen /McGill Tribune)

This Month in Student Research: Finding the art in developmental biology

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Known for its excellence in research, McGill University is home to a host of professors and scientists whose work contributes to scientific innovation. In tribute to the amazing work conducted within McGill’s walls, each month, Science and Technology features a student researcher who has helped further the cutting-edge science conducted at the laboratories. 

Di Hu stands a mere 5’2”, but what she lacks in height she makes up for in passion and her bubbly demeanor. Over the past four years at McGill, the U3 Anatomy and Cell Biology major has worked in six different laboratories, created three different posters, discovered a novel gene, and became involved in four papers—one of which she recently submitted to the Journal of Biomedical Sciences as first author.

Hu’s gateway into scientific research is unique from most undergraduate students at McGill. Hu actually attended an arts middle school, where she explored music and visual arts before pursuing more science-based courses in high school, and ultimately at McGill.

“In that time in my life in middle school, [I realized] how important creativity is, and that I always want to make something new,” Hu said. “I took that to McGill—I don’t want to just learn from a textbook for the rest of my life, I want to make advancements. My favourite aspect of [research] is the creativity.”

Hu was unsure at first as to what type of research she was interested in pursuing—or whether that was even in her future at all—but she knew that she wanted the experience. She recalled her first lab position where she performed data analysis in electron microscopy.

“It was very simple work. I didn’t know much about electron microscopy at the time, but I could delete blurry pictures.”

As Hu progressed in her U1 courses that semester, the picture quickly unfolded as to what she was passionate about.

“I was sitting in BIOL 200, and that was the class that really changed my life,” Hu said. “I realized how much I loved molecular biology, the questions involved, and the implications that fundamental research has in human health and disease.”

From this point forward, Hu’s advancements in the realm of research seemed to flow naturally. She took inspiration from each lab she worked in and looked forward to other laboratories that she could explore.

“I learned in Dr. Richard Roy’s lab that I really like development [….] However, I realized that ‘Yes, I like development, but I wanted to work with mammals,’” said Hu. “Dr. Maxine Bouchard was giving us a lecture about kidney development the next semester in BIOC 212. That was when I realized, ‘Wow, understanding the process of kidney development can help us understand congenital disease as well as cancers [….] I asked him if I could join his lab after class and he let me.”

However, it was Hu’s experience as a summer student at SickKids hospital that opened her eyes to the career she is currently pursuing. Unlike her other lab experiences, her work with Dr. Norman Rosenbloom pulled her away from the lab bench and into the clinic.

“[Because Rosenbloom] is both a researcher and a physician, I got to see the patient-driven motivation behind [his research] and it was so cool,” Hu explained. “That was when I realized that I want to be a physician scientist. It just made so much sense for me. I want to be at the bedside and I want to talk to patients and help them on a one-on-one basis and also use that to inspire questions at the lab.”

Although Hu initially applied to PhD-MD programs, throughout the application process she noticed how much more fluidly she could write the PhD aspect of the application. While Hu traveled to Oxford for the holidays over Christmas break, she decided to apply to the school’s graduate program. Taking a chance, she wrote the application on the plane back to Canada—little did she know she would be accepted into this five-person program.

“I felt like there was just a natural flow in what I did, and I was really just pursuing what I like to do,” said Hu.

As a pre-med Science student, Hu never would have imagined that after four years of undergraduate studies at McGill she would be jetting off to Oxford in the Fall to start her PhD. Yet, it was these unexpected experiences in the lab that have proved invaluable, both in terms of her class work and her own professional development.

“It definitely helps put what I’m doing in class into deeper context,” Hu said. “Memorization, you know, I don’t think I do that anymore at all. I understand it and can picture it. It also makes you realize what is important and what is not.”

“I think one of the most important things I have learned in research is to embrace failure,” Hu said. “It really changed my life to be calmer and say, ‘Yes, I may fail,’ because you are always failing at research. Be open-minded and learn from failure and recognize it and improve. It kind of made my life better.”

McGill Tribune: If you could describe yourself in three words, what would you say?

Di Hu: “Passionate, natural, and creative.”

 

MT: What is your favourite part of developmental biology?

DH: “I think [one] aspect is that it is so funny and weird that all of the processes in developmental biology do the exact same things in cancer. The only difference is that the embryonic environment is very sterile, but the adult environment is very toxic. The same processes in different environments lead to very different things. To study development is to study cancer, and I think it is a very powerful tool.”

 

MT: If you could have one superpower what would it be?

DH: “To know what others are feeling—emotions. I try to be aware, but sometimes, you don’t know.”

 

MT: Do you have a favourite article of clothing?

DH: “Definitely like a head thing—it is like a hair accessory. I feel like head accessories are the future. I love these, they are so much fun.”