September 9, 2021

From summer student to PhD student

Alexa Thompson and her dog, Wagner.

Alexa Thompson and her dog, Wagner. Photo submitted by Thompson.

Alexa Thompson had always been interested in exploring a career in healthcare; but, it wasn’t until her WCHRI summer studentship that she found her passion—research.

After completing a bachelor of science in cell biology in 2019, Thompson began graduate studies looking at how to improve the diagnosis and linkage to care for pregnant women infected with hepatitis C. Thompson also embraces giving back where she can and serves as chair of WCHRI’s Trainee Advisory Committee (TAC), as well as president of her department’s student group.

Thinking back to your time as a WCHRI summer student, what was the best part?

If you would have asked me this at the time, I would have answered growing parasites in a blood culture, or finally getting results after troubleshooting my project. But looking back as a graduate student, the best part was just learning the fundamentals of the scientific method—it’s been invaluable in my current research projects. I know how to approach a research question, determine how to answer it and make it robust in following the scientific method. Learning the fundamentals really allows you to know that the science that you’re putting forward is not only good, it’s robust, and what you’re putting out there is as accurate as possible.

What are you investigating with your PhD project?

I’m going to use an analogy—COVID and hepatitis C are both viruses, but while COVID causes lung issues, hepatitis C causes liver issues. Pregnant women with hepatitis C can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy, so not only are they at risk for liver complications, but their babies will be as well. Without intervention programs that identify and treat hepatitis C before complications occur, both mother and baby can go on to develop liver issues. In fact, hepatitis C is the leading cause of pediatric liver disease across Canada.

Unfortunately, only eight per cent of all prenatal women in Alberta are screened for the virus, and many people don’t know they have hepatitis C until they already have some liver damage. My research specifically focuses on trying to both improve the identification of hepatitis C in pregnant women and their babies and create new intervention programs that provide more opportunities for treatment.

Previously, prenatal women were only screened for hepatitis C if they exhibited risk factors for potentially acquiring an infection, like a history of previous drug use or receiving blood products prior to 1992. Tattoos and body piercings are also risk factors, but because they’re so common, many prenatal women weren’t screened until a new universal screening program was implemented in Alberta. Thanks to this new program, each year, about 25 additional women have been identified with hepatitis C, who otherwise would have been missed with the risk-based screening program.

Why did you decide to investigate pregnancy and hepatitis C?

My family actually has a long-standing history of pregnancy complications. I became interested in prenatal research, especially the intersection between pregnancy and infectious diseases, during my WCHRI summer studentship project that looked at malaria in pregnancy.

I really wanted to find something that I was going to be passionate about over the long term when going into graduate studies and I chose hepatitis C in pregnancy, specifically because of its potential to be treated and cured.

Unlike a lot of other viruses that don’t currently have vaccines, hepatitis C can actually be treated, but the problem is identifying it early enough, and getting people to the right type of physician for treatment. I really like the fact that in pregnancy if you are able to identify hepatitis C, not only are you most likely identifying infection at an early stage, but it’s a bit of a two for one deal—you can help mom and baby!

Where are you currently in your research?

We’re about halfway through implementing our new universal screening program in Alberta. As part of a pilot program for my project, hepatitis C has been added to the communicable disease panel that prenatal women receive in the first trimester of their pregnancy. I’m excited to say that we’ve been able to identify significantly more women who have hepatitis C with our new program compared to the former program.

We also coupled our universal screening with a new notifiable referral process. Previously, prenatal women would be referred to specialists through their ordering physicians, but now if they test positive, the virologist on call will alert their ordering physician and give them some of the referral information to make the process easier. Just by simply amending this referral process we’re hoping to see downstream that more of these women and their babies are referred to a specialist.

Within the Public Health Laboratory we’ve also implemented a new hepatitis C testing protocol. Formerly, if a prenatal woman tested positive with a blood sample, they would have to submit a second blood sample for confirmatory diagnosis. Our new testing protocol allows for diagnosis with just one single blood sample, which allows us to be more efficient at diagnosing hepatitis C and intervene in a much shorter time frame. 

As a trainee, why was it important for you to be engaged with WCHRI?

WCHRI provides unique opportunities that I really don’t think are available to a lot of students outside of their lab areas. It’s incredible that you can network and meet people from other disciplines that are also within the women and children’s health umbrella. WCHRI supports three different research disciplines—women’s health, children’s health and pregnancy and development trajectory—but you also have people who are doing basic, clinical and knowledge translation research. It’s really amazing just to see how other people’s research connects to yours, but from a different perspective.

Those who are doing basic research may not realize that at some point they’re going to have to have a knowledge translation component. Because WCHRI supports basic, clinical and knowledge translation research, students can see how their research might look through a different lens, and then get advice and network with people who have that expertise.

One thing I love about WCHRI is the culture of support for women researchers. To have an environment where women are doing research, specifically on women and children’s health, is empowering.

What are some of TAC’s goals for the next year?

The first year of our mentorship pilot program was really successful—we had 15 trainees matched with WCHRI academic members. This year, we’re hoping to expand our program and enrol more people.

We are also piloting a new trainee spotlight, where former WCHRI summer students will be profiled to see where they are now and how research has impacted their career and academic journey. 

If you could switch roles with someone for a week, who would you choose?

Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health and WCHRI member. I don’t think she has any idea who I am, but she works a lot in health policy, specifically advocating in drug policy. The thing that I really love about her and her research is that her research advocates for people who use drugs and drug policy, which directly affects my patients in a positive way.

She’s advocating for controversial policy changes and I admire anyone who is willing to stick up for the rights of our patients and advocate for them—making sure others realize even if someone uses or injects drugs, that they’re still people and they still deserve to have rights. That there are better policies we can implement to not only help their lives but to help them within the healthcare system.

What has the support from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation meant to you?

I honestly don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for the generosity of their support. My summer studentship inspired me to become more involved in prenatal research and to focus my graduate studies in that area. It also motivated me to know there are people out there who are willing to support me as a person in research I’m passionate about.

Financial support is really one form of encouragement that decreases the doubt I sometimes feel about my abilities. You know, I think everyone has bouts of imposter syndrome and it’s really motivating to see yourself as someone who is worthy of everything that you get to do.

Alexa Thompson is a PhD student in the department of laboratory medicine & pathology and is supervised by Carmen Charlton. Her graduate studentship is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation through WCHRI. Her summer studentship project was supervised by Joel Dacks and was funded by the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry Studentship in Placental Research through WCHRI.

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