2019 Vanier Scholar: Allison Balasko
Balasko will be conducting her research in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases
Allison Balasko is one of six 2019 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipients from the University of Manitoba – a record setting year for the university.
These awards, considered the Canadian equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Rhodes Scholarships, help recruit and keep in Canada top doctoral students from across the country and around the world. Each recipient will receive $150,000 over three years toward their research.
Balasko will be conducting her research in the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. UM Today caught up with Balasko to chat about how the Vanier Scholarship will help her thesis Investigating how to reverse the exhaustive and detrimental effects of HIV on the immune system.
Tell me about your thesis.
I work in a viral immunology lab focused on HIV treatment. In the world there is almost 40 million people living with HIV and even though there are some treatments available there’s still a lot of clinical symptoms and negative impacts of having HIV. That’s where my project is focused. We’re looking at developing some therapeutic options for people living with HIV to help their immune systems better fight off infections that they might encounter during their lifetime and live longer.
What made you choose this topic and what interested you in the first place?
The reason why I wanted to focus on HIV research is just the sheer abundance and the damage that the HIV epidemic has had on everyone around the world for the past 40 years. There are also tons of ways my project will impact other fields and not just HIV. You can relate it to a lot of different fields like cancer immunotherapy for example. My project has a broader scope than just HIV. The potential of immune therapeutics can impact millions of lives.
I have always wanted to be a doctor, so I’m starting the medical program as well as doing research. I find there are the silos of research and clinical work, but to be able to bridge those two together so when you meet with a patient you see the direct effects. It helps you move your research forward and gives you that drive to want to help that person. That really helps to shape your research into what people need in the clinic right in that moment. It’s invaluable to have those connections between clinical work and research.
How has your experience at the U of M been so far when it comes to your thesis?
I’m in a world-renowned HIV immunology laboratory with Dr. Keith Fowke and a multitude of people – medical microbiology and infectious disease program, the National Microbiology Lab, the J.C. Wilt (Infectious Disease Research Centre). U of M is really the hub for infectious disease research. Being able to have the opportunity to work in Dr. Fowke’s lab has been fantastic.
Dr. Keith Fowke not only has been a mentor for the bench work for my science and my thesis, but also a fantastic mentor professionally. He has connections within this huge network across Canada and he brings you into that, allowing the opportunity to find collaborations with different groups.
Now that you’re a Vanier Scholar, what does that mean to you?
It’s extremely humbling because I know how competitive it is. I feel like I’m almost sharing it with everyone that I’ve ever come into contact with who’s affected any kind of change in me for the better.
It’s a very exciting opportunity professionally. To able to feel that kind of legitimacy behind your name, which is great, but I’m mostly humbled. I want to share it with everybody that I’ve ever come into contact with – everyone that’s mentored me.
Looking five or ten years down the road, where do you see yourself? Where would you like to be?
In five to 10 years I’m probably just graduating! I am going into the MD PhD program and that entails both being a clinical physician, but also carrying out research.
In the future I’d like to run or lead a multidisciplinary working group that can help treat people with HIV or even prevent HIV from occurring while working with partners. To provide empowerment to communities to take charge of their health.