CANDID: Meet grad student Rebecca Dielschneider-Delong
Rebecca Dielschneider-Delong is one of the roughly 3,800 students enrolled in the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. UM Today has written a lot about her recently because she placed second in the national 3MT competition and then won a BIOTECanada award. UM Today wanted to get to know her on a more personal, candid, level, so we talked with her about her hobbies, her cruelty to her sister when they were kids, and how it was she came to love the oboe and choose a career studying cancer.
PhD student: Rebecca Dielschneider-Delong
Studying in: Department of immunology, Faculty of Health Sciences
Advisor: Spencer Gibson, director of the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology and a professor and Manitoba Chair in the departments of biochemistry and medical genetics and immunology
UM Today: I know you can explain your research in three minutes, but what about in ten seconds?
Rebecca Dielschneider-Delong: I think if I had to condense it to ten seconds or one sentence, I’d say I study leukemia and I’m searching for better therapies.
Let’s expand that. What’s wrong with our current therapies?
The therapies we have now are really problematic for a couple of reasons. One being drug resistance – they don’t work in all patients. Some patients are just inherently resistant; the therapies don’t work right off the bat, or resistance develops over time. And secondly, there is drug toxicity. A lot of the therapies are just so toxic that a lot of patients – especially the elderly or those who aren’t physically fit – aren’t even eligible for them.
So are you trying to find different drugs, or different parts of the cell to attack?
Both. Sometimes we follow a common therapeutic approach and just find better therapies that fit into that. But some of my projects are also focused on novel, completely different therapeutic approaches and we try to find new drugs that would fit into that scheme.
How did you get into this line of research?
I guess in high school I always knew biology was my forte and interest. I remember distinctly a guest speaker coming into my Grade 11 biology class – and this is back in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I grew up – and he was just talking about flu vaccines. I found it so interesting; it was the most interesting topic I learned in high school so I decided to pursue immunology further.
I received a bachelor of science in microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie. And there I developed more of an interest in cancer biology. So I thought, well, maybe I could merge the cancer and immunology fields by studying a cancer of the immune system – leukemia. So that’s what I’m doing now.
So you grew up in Halifax. How did you end up here at the U of M?
I first came to Winnipeg as a co-op student. I did a co-op degree and my first co-op job was with the National Microbiology Lab here. So there were obviously many things that attracted me to a national lab of that quality and caliber. So when I got the opportunity to study and work there I took it. I made lots of friends and connections here. I met many people from the University of Manitoba and developed an appreciation for all the things this city and university had to offer so it made a lot of sense to come here for grad studies.
And I married a local.
Getting back to your cancer research, does that stem from a personal experience? Does leukemia run in your family?
I’ve certainly had friends, unfortunately, really young friends even, pass away from leukemia but I’m pretty sure that cancer has touched everyone’s family in some way or another. It’s just one of those diseases that everyone can relate to, even just a little a bit.
It’s not only a really relevant disease, but from a biological standpoint there are still so many things we don’t know. So from a curiosity standpoint I want to know more and there is so much more to know and research.
The 3MT competition: What was that like prepping for and doing? Have you done something like it before?
I definitely love public speaking but I have never done something like this. Preparing for the Three-Minute Thesis was definitely the hardest thing I have done as a graduate student.
By far. Just distilling your research down to three minutes in general, simple language was the hardest part. We’re so used to giving talks to our peers and colleagues and so you get used to using that language. But to a general audience… they don’t understand, or you’d need to take far more than three minutes to explain it. So using that simple language and still getting the significance across was hard.
How did you prep for it?
For me it started writing down some thoughts and getting some key sentences down and then filling the spaces in between. And then practice. After I got a script it was practice, practice, practice, several times a day. I think my husband heard me practice the most. He could probably recite it by heart as well. And presenting in front of other people too – and filming myself present it so I could watch all the little mannerisms, twitches, the little constant blinks or funny hand motions. All of that is noticed and judged. So it was a lot of refinement and a lot of practice.
I’ll never forget the first practice run I did in front of my lab. I just blew it. I forgot words three or four times in the middle of the three minutes. It was brutal. But it was my first practice run and I still wasn’t fully happy with my script and that really motivated me to make it better and never mess up like that again.
What was it like finding out you got second place?
It was amazing.
I read through that email numerous times thinking that they sent it to the wrong person. That there was somehow a mistake – there was no way I won second place.
I mean, I think back to the first 3MT heat competition at the U of M. I wasn’t in the top three in my heat so initially I didn’t move on. I was crushed. I thought my 3MT competition was over. This was my last chance and I blew it.
But then I got an email later that day saying that they thought all the competitors were really high caliber so they created wild card spots and I ended up getting a wild card spot. So I revamped my talk further and ended up winning the University of Manitoba competition, going on to the western regional competition, where I didn’t even really win anything there. I got People’s Choice Award, thanks to a lot of people back home voting for me, which sent me on to the national competition. So just knowing that I wasn’t even in the top three in the western regional but made it to the top two of the national is unbelievable.
In sports that’s called a ‘Cinderella Story’.
Ha. A little bit, sure.
And then didn’t you win another award recently?
It was actually announced the same day. So I got the email about the national 3MT results and the results of this other award the same day. So that was a really good Wednesday.
What was the other award?
It was from BIOTECanada and that was one of their Gold Leaf Awards. They usually give out these Gold Leaf Awards to really established researchers or emerging companies but this year they created a category for an emerging leader, so someone under 30 either at the university or an institution doing great research. And I don’t know how I won that one, but I did.
It’s been a good month.
Do you have advice for other 3MT participants?
I encourage all graduate students in general to just try this out. Encourage your lab or institution to have a mini competition to help people prepare – that’s what CancerCare is doing now. It’s just an amazing opportunity. It will make you a better speaker. It will help you work on your confidence and vocabulary and your presentation skills in general. I encourage everyone to give it a try.
Do you have any pets?
I have to show you. [pulls out phone] This is my corgi. Isn’t he cute? He’s our little fur baby. His name is Archer.
… We drove down to South Dakota to get him and he’s just the best dog ever. We joke around with him a bit saying he’s American so he doesn’t get all our Canadian things.
Yes, we talk to our dog a lot.
Do you have any hobbies outside of the lab?
Yes, probably a bit too many.
You don’t hear that often from a graduate student.
I know. I’m definitely the type of person that believes in a work-life balance. You’re not going to be happy or stress-free, I think, in general, unless you have other outlets. There are certainly long days and many weekends that I spend in the lab but in the winter Tyler, my husband, and I are on a curling team. In the summer we’re on a softball team. I’m getting good at both of those but I’m not great at either yet. I also joined a community band this year.
A community band? What do you play?
I play the oboe.
I played oboe all through school and little bit on the side in undergrad and I thought, well, if I have to drop something for grad school that will be it, but I obviously kept it. And I realized that this year I needed something artsy in my life, so I tried it out and it’s been working pretty well.
What’s your favourite song featuring an oboe?
Gabriel’s Oboe is the best song for oboe. Yeah. It’s beautiful.
How did you get exposed to the oboe? How did you come to say, ‘that’s my instrument’?
I was in Grade 6 and was listening to all these different instruments and was able to pick some up and I tried them out and… I don’t know. I’ve always been a bit different, a bit odd, and I just thought the oboe was perfect for me. And I just knew right off the bat that, ‘yeah, I’ll play the oboe.’
It was like my decision to study immunology. I just knew that too.
You’re a decider. My rugby coach had a saying that the worst decision was indecision.
I played a rugby a lot too but I had to stop when I started lab work because I was pretty accident prone.
Yeah, it’s hard to be a professional with black eyes.
Oh yeah. The bruises. And I broke my wrist in high school playing rugby… I dislocated my pinky playing flag football. Stupid. It was just a bad catch and I thought I just dislocated it so a first-aid person put it back in place and then I proceeded to go boxing. And then it was boxing that completely annihilated the bone in my pinky. So I have no bone there anymore. I just have lots of screws.
So we got rugby, boxing…
Those were all in my younger years. I haven’t done those in the past decade.
How are old you?
I just turned 26 in April.
I have a younger sister. She just moved to Toronto from the East Coast with her significant other.
We’re complete opposites: she’s very business savvy. She loves to work behind a desk. I think I would cry if I had to sit behind a desk all day.
We’re very different. She’s blonde and blue eyed and looks like a Barbie. I used to be so mean to her when we were growing up. I used to tell her she was adopted and made her cry.
My sister said that to me!
Sisters are mean. But now we’re best friends.
What is your favourite part of your job? I’m calling your PhD your job.
That’s hard because there are a lot of fun parts but I think my favorite part would still be lab work. The thrill of making a complex experiment work and getting the results that you actually hypothesized. It’s just a thrill and excitement like no other. I mean, it will sustain you through the months of negative data and the negative feedback and the rejection galore. It’s just exciting…. There’s no other feeling like that!