Mar 9, 2023

Faces of Temerty Medicine: Elaine Thai

By Julia Soudat
Elaine Thai

Curiosity and a desire to make a positive impact on the world drove student Elaine Thai to pursue graduate studies in biochemistry. Now in the fifth year of her PhD, Elaine reflected on what sparked her interest in research, how she got over her presentation anxiety and what the best parts of graduate school have been so far.

What inspired you to pursue science and research?

I think it was a mix of curiosity and wanting to make a positive impact on the world. There’s something really satisfying to me about the scientific process of starting with a question, designing and running a series of experiments to investigate, and finally getting an answer. Of course, there’s typically a lot of troubleshooting along the way, but I enjoy problem-solving, and overcoming these obstacles usually leads to a more robust and fulfilling answer. Although the preclinical research that I do is quite far upstream of a potential therapeutic product that would be administered to people in need, it’s nice to think that the discoveries that I make could lead to something way bigger than myself.

What does your research focus on?

My work focuses on looking at the structure of antibodies to figure out how they target the pathogen that causes malaria. After that, we can use what we learned about these antibodies to design vaccines that will tell our bodies how to make the best antibodies to stop the parasite and block malaria infection. I decided to conduct research on this because I think this process of structure-based vaccine development is really cool! Being able to actually see how antibodies target and block a pathogen, and then reverse-engineering a vaccine to tell your body how to make these antibodies so that they’re ready to protect you before you even get infected is such an elegant and logical model to me. For one project, I computationally designed a new vaccine molecule, made it and studied it in the lab, tested it in an animal model, and found that it works better than a more traditionally designed vaccine! Isn’t that wild?!

What have been the highlights of being in your program at U of T?

Going to conferences to network, learn about all the research going on in the field and share my own little slice of work is always a really great experience. One meeting in particular that I was lucky enough to attend was a small gathering for groups funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work on a new malaria vaccine. It was such a unique and amazing experience to be surrounded by all of these experts to discuss such a specific topic, tour the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation campus, and meet some of my international collaborators in person for the first time! Closer to home, the Biochemistry Graduate Student Union has put on some really fun and exciting Departmental events that I’ll truly remember for the rest of my life. Last but not least, I’ve made some of the best friends I’ll ever have (and even met my fiancé) during my PhD and I’m so grateful for them every day.

What were you most nervous or unsure about when you first started?

When I first started grad school, any type of presentation made me extremely anxious. I remember not being able to sleep the night before my poster presentation at my first Departmental retreat because I was so nervous. To get around my nerves, I tried to make sure that all of my presentations were super well-rehearsed – to the point where I pretty much memorized a script. Because of that though, my presentations sounded unnatural, and I would go through them way too quickly. As time went on, I slowly began to gain confidence in myself and learned to trust my presentation skills. I realized that I had nothing to worry about because when it really came down to it, I knew my research through and through, and nobody knew my work better than me.

What do you like to do when you’re not focused on research?

Outside of the lab, I like to swim, play volleyball and do yoga. I also like watching (Marvel) movies, spending time with family and friends, and bopping out to my favourite tunes (usually by myself in my living room).

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a similar academic path? What do you wish you had known when you were starting out?

My main piece of advice to students starting graduate school would be to take a step back every now and then and recognize that life is still happening all around you. When you’re pursuing research, I think it can be really easy to completely zero in on your lab work and lose sight a little of other things that might be going on in your life. Grad school can be a really special experience, but the years go by really quickly. By the end of your degree, you probably aren’t going to be the same person that you were at the beginning of this experience, so it’s important to be intentional and aware of this personal growth as it happens to really appreciate the moments that matter most.