I am extremely passionate about researching multiple sclerosis (MS) as I have a direct connection with people living with the disease. From an early age I was very aware of what MS is, its clinical course and effects on a person. Once I realized being a researcher was a career, I have wanted to be involved in MS research and to discover the "why" of the disease. I have specifically come to Karolinska Institutet from Canada so I can be part of ground-breaking MS research and have access to the incredible registers. I am a highly dedicated and enthusiastic person who loves puzzles, which is how I think of MS development and progression, putting the clues together one piece at a time.
Throughout my life I’ve loved science, participating in science fairs and peppering my teachers with endless questions of “why” about everything and anything. This lead perfectly to my undergraduate degree in science from York University in Honours Biology, focused first in molecular biology and neuro-degeneration in which I flew to France for an internship investigating epileptic proteins. I realized quickly that I enjoyed learning about molecular biology, but liked less being in a wet-lab, finding that I more wanted a connection to people rather than individual molecules. Starting first in molecular biology, I gained valuable knowledge and hands-on experience I use today to understand MS pathology and mechanisms at a molecular level. I then switched the focus of my degree to neuroscience and my first taste of doing my own research was during my undergraduate thesis at York University, working with Professor Joseph DeSouza as part of the Dance for Parkinson’s project with the Canadian National Ballet. My thesis was exploring dance as a possible alternative treatment for Parkinson’s symptoms. I not only directly collected, analyzed and presented EEG data findings from people with Parkinson’s, but I also participated in the dance classes as a support dancer.
I subsequently realized that I in fact adored statistics, and once realizing that epidemiology was this perfect marriage of statistics and science, I applied and successfully completed a Master's in Public Health Specializing in Epidemiology from Karolinska Insitutet. During my Master's, Professor Lars Alfredsson gave me my first opportunity to be involved with MS research, with Dr. Anna-Karin Hedström as my supervisor. My thesis using the Epidemiological Investigation of MS data to determine whether human pigmentation and related genes were risk factors for MS. I then became a research assistant, working with Professor Scott Montgomery provided me invaluable hands-on experience in working with register-based cohort and case-control studies and looking at both risk factors for MS such as pneumonia, as well as complications of MS including comorbidity, mortality, and infections. I have been given the opportunity to continue all of these projects in a PhD, with Professor Montgomery as my supervisor.
I am interested in MS both from an etiological point of view, as well as determining risk for complications of MS including its progression. In order to examine both risk factors and risks for complications, I use a combination of data from Swedish registers, genetic material and questionnaires using various study designs such as case-control, cohort, single SNP associations and GWAS.
Determining risk of MS under key risk period such as childhood and adolescence, long before the initial clinical symptom of MS appears is especially fascinating to me. How infections, trauma, and other diseases interact with one's underlying genetics in increasing susceptibility to MS is one main topic I aim to explore.
I am also continuing the preliminary work started during my Master's thesis, in determining how pigmentation and related genes affect the risk of MS, as well as its progression. To date, no study has attempted to comprehensively examine individual pigmentation in combination with genetics, ancestry, vitamin-D, UVR and sex in a sufficiently large sample to determine how it affects both MS risk and disease progression. The interplay between these factors represents a critical knowledge gap in determining who is at risk of MS, and why some people with MS may progress faster than others.
Additionally, I also focus on relevant complications of MS that are common among people with MS, but that are less well understood, such as spasticity and urinogenital infections. Spasticity in particular is not well understood among people with MS, and can present daily challenges for them. Therefore, understanding the possible causes of complications of MS in the hopes to spark further research to minimize them is a goal.
PhD Projects - Publications
Hospital diagnosed pneumonia before age 20 years and MS risk. Smith KA, Hiyoshi A, Burkill S, Bahmanyar S, Öckinger J, Alfredsson L et al. 2020. BMJ Neurology Open: https://neurologyopen.bmj.com/content/2/1/e000044
2016 to Present PhD Medical Science, Specialising in Epidemiology and Neurology Karolinska Institutet – Stockholm, Sweden
2018 Master of Medical Science, Public Health Specialized in Epidemiology Karolinska Institutet – Stockholm, Sweden
2015 International Bachelor of Science, Honours Biology York University – Toronto, Canada.
2013 Undergraduate Biology exchange student Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 – Lyon, France.