Mar 22, 2023

Faces of Temerty Medicine: Michelle Harwood

Michelle Harwood
By Julia Soudat

How do things like age, ancestry and environment alter our gene expression? This is a question Michelle Harwood focuses on in her research. Currently working on her PhD in Molecular Genetics, Harwood shares how she got interested in science in the first place, and how she dealt with imposter syndrome in graduate school.  

What inspired you to pursue a career in science and research?

I think a lot of people who pursue a career in science, especially in human genetics, have a passion not only for the science itself, but for helping people. Everyone knows someone who has suffered with a disease, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, etc, and those personal experiences help to motivate the research we are doing. I love learning new things, and to be able to learn and expand our understanding on important topics that may positively impact society is very exciting to me. I have also had amazing peers and mentors along the way that inspired me in this career direction as well. A postdoc in my undergraduate lab, my undergraduate roommates who have also gone on in careers in science and research, and current peers in my program and my lab are all people, many of whom are women, who have helped shape my career so far and inspire me daily.

What does your research focus on?

I study population variability in gene expression – asking why some individuals can have the same or similar genetic makeup but are still so unique. I specifically explore how factors such as your age, ancestry, and environment can alter your gene expression. I’m currently focusing on the aging aspect of this project, where I compare young versus aged individuals to see differences in aging overall, but also compare healthy agers to unhealthy agers, or people who have developed a disease, to explore mechanisms of healthy aging. We have data for individuals who have developed hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cancer, or who have high cholesterol levels, and we are identifying differences in their gene expression patterns compared to older individuals who remain healthy.

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

I’ve been involved in many groups and initiatives during my time at U of T. I was involved in my department’s graduate student association (GSA) for many years, including as Vice President Student Life where I helped create an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee within the department. I also had the opportunity to represent the department in 2021 as co-president, where I was involved in many aspects of grad life, including many social, academic, and health/wellness related discussions and initiatives. I was also involved in creating an initiative funded by the GLSE titled “Crushing Impostor Phenomenon in Science” focusing on sharing experiences of impostor phenomenon and highlighting individuals who identify as a member of a minority group.

Another highlight of my program, which I have been able to enjoy more recently due to the impact of COVID on some of the early years in my program, is the opportunity to attend conferences. I love meeting new people and discussing exciting new topics in amazing places around the world.

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

Like many people when they are starting grad school, I had major impostor syndrome. I used to think they mixed up my application and accepted the wrong person. Maybe there was another “Michelle Harwood” out there that was supposed to be accepted instead. I was convinced I didn’t belong and that I was going to fail or show people I don’t belong. In reality, I learned that many students feel impostor syndrome. But we aren’t meant to know everything. We’re here to learn, not to be experts in the topic already. There are still moments where I get feelings of impostor syndrome, but I have gained more confidence since first starting my program.

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

I love being active and being outdoors! I really enjoy swimming – I used to play water polo, and although I’m not part of a team anymore, I still enjoy getting in the water whenever I get a chance. I also love hiking! My partner and I like to find new trails to take our dog on and we’ve seen some amazing views. We have some bucket list hikes we’re hoping to tackle in the next year or so, such as taking a trip to Switzerland or hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!