Rishav Sharma

Supervisor: Angela McBrien

Project: A study to assess the frequency of other abnormalities in unborn babies diagnosed with tetralogy of Fallot


Edmonton, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science

Why did you choose this program?

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the ability of science to translate abstract principles into tangible ideas, and when starting university I chose to major in biological sciences. From understanding the subtleties of cellular functioning to the far reaching impacts of environmental and behavioural biology, the past three years of my degree have provided me with a firm foundation of knowledge that will continue to be essential as I move forward in my career.

What was it like to continue your research project when much of the country was in a lockdown or faced major restrictions?

Given the unprecedented nature of events we have faced throughout this year, it was absolutely a privilege to be allowed to conduct research over this summer. Despite various restrictions surrounding social distancing, Dr. McBrien and I were able to adapt our project to the circumstances and still achieve the major goals we had set out for this summer.

What's been the best part of your experience so far?

As an undergraduate student, oftentimes our learning within the classroom emphasizes memorization with a limited application of that knowledge. This studentship has been a very rewarding experience as I was able to take what I have learned over the past three years and effectively apply my knowledge within a research setting. This not only allowed me to conduct a research project from start to finish but also allowed me to strengthen my communication skills and scientific writing abilities within a professional environment.

How has your studentship helped you towards your career aspirations?

As someone who wishes to pursue a career within research and healthcare, this summer studentship has been an instrumental step forward in that direction. The birth of a baby is a major life event and a source of tremendous happiness and hope for many parents. Unfortunately, a lot of families are faced with the challenges of caring for a child with congenital heart disease, which in addition to the physical toll, can have major impacts on emotional, psychological and financial well being of the family. My work throughout this studentship has reaffirmed my interests within healthcare and research as it has helped me realize the capacity of this field—through research or clinical work—to transcend social, cultural and economic boundaries in order to address shared needs of many patients. Given my ultimate career goal, being able to work under Dr. McBrien's mentorship has given me invaluable insight into how clinical research, patient care, and medical decisions are balanced.

What has the support from WCHRI and the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation meant to you?

As someone that has limited research experience, I am extremely grateful to receive support from WCHRI and the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation to conduct impactful research this summer. The funding allowed me to solely focus on research this summer without having to worry about taking on additional summer employment. Furthermore, through the support of donors, many students like myself can continue contributing to the wellbeing of mothers, infants and children through research.

Lay abstract:

Tetralogy of Fallot is a heart condition which develops before a baby is born, and is one of the most common heart conditions diagnosed in unborn babies. Babies with tetralogy of Fallot require heart surgery within the first six to nine months of life to repair the heart condition. Unfortunately, babies with tetralogy of Fallot are at risk of having other significant birth defects, including problems with other organs (e.g., kidneys, bowel or skeleton) or even genetic problems (abnormalities of the baby's cells, which impact on how their body develops). When an unborn baby is given a diagnosis of a heart abnormality, it is important for the fetal cardiology team (who look after these babies before birth) to be able to give families accurate information on the risk of their baby having another birth defect or a genetic problem.

In the last decade, major developments in genetic testing have increased the amount of genetic problems that can be identified. In addition, there has been a significant improvement in the detection rate for tetralogy of Fallot before birth. The combination of these factors means that substantially more cases of tetralogy of Fallot are being diagnosed before birth and the information we have from the past on the rate of genetic problems and other birth defects is not reliable in the current era.

We propose to investigate the rate of genetic problems and other birth defects in the patients we have diagnosed before birth with tetralogy of Fallot over the last eight years. This information will help us to accurately counsel parents of future unborn babies who are diagnosed with this heart problem. It is important for us to have this information, as families will use this information both to make decisions about the pregnancy and to understand what to expect from the future for their baby.