Ph.D candidate, Biomedical & Molecular Sciences (Physiology)
Nicolle Domnik presenting the oyster spat data at the Experimental Biology conference (Boston, spring 2013)
"There are all kinds of possibilities open to you as a grad student"
by Sharday Mosurinjohn, April 2014
Having pursued all her university degrees at Queen’s, Nicolle Domnik has nonetheless had the opportunity to travel with her research as far as Tasmania, follow the translation of research through primary, clinical, and industry settings, and work with creatures as commonplace as mice and as unusual as baby oysters.
Domnik, who just finished her comprehensive exams in the Department of Biology and Molecular Science’s Physiology PhD program, originally started out in the cardiorespiratory stream of the Life Sciences BSc. In her fourth year of undergraduate studies, she opted to undertake a project in the lab of Dr. John T. Fisher, who specializes in researching airway innervation and sensory feedback from the lung. The experience was so stimulating that it made her want to do a Master’s in the same lab.
“I considered going elsewhere,” remembers Domnik, “but I had no reservations about staying because I knew it was a supportive environment and I had the opportunity to network and work elsewhere while doing a degree from here.” The major opportunity Domnik is referring to was the Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement, available to holders of Tri-Council funding (The Canadian Institute of Health Research [CIHR], the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council [NSERC], and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council [SSHRC]). Knowing that Dr. Fisher would be spending several months in Australia, Domnik applied to study there, too, not thinking she had a real chance. So when the date to hear back about the award had passed with no news, it was what Domnik expected. But finally, a month late, the notice of award wound its way through university departments to arrive in the right mailbox, leaving Domnik only a week to pack up and leave for a three–month stint across the globe.
At the University of Tasmania, Domnik studied with Dr. Peter Frappell (Zoology), who works on the physiological processes and mechanisms that underlie respiratory,thermoregulatory and energetic adaptation to the environment in a range of animals, from crustaceans to mammals. In this case, it was exploring environmental factors impacting oyster heart rate variability, which involved tracking the heartbeats of baby oysters. “Convenient,” says Domnik, “given that you can actually see their little hearts beating though their translucent shells. I’d never stopped to consider whether oysters even had hearts, in the typical sense, before I started this project.” And when she says “little,” she’s referring to the fact that the spat themselves (young oysters) were only about one millimeter across. The overall project was tied into Australia’s Food Futures program, which is dedicated to optimizing health of aquaculture species and minimizing environmental impact of farming them.
It was the application of basic scientific principles to such very different settings—from a research lab at Queen’s to the food industry in Tasmania—that made Domnik want to do a PhD. “I had originally thought the MSc would be a terminal degree, after which I’d work, or maybe change schools for a professional degree—it would be some kind of endpoint to graduate research.” But upon returning, Domnik rolled her mini masters into the PhD stream of her program. She still holds NSERC funding, and still does what she describes as “fundamental, basic research.”
Domnik is studying a kind of cell located in the lung that has both neuronal and endocrine features, called “neuroendocrine” cells. These cells receive produce and respond to neurotransmitters and, as a consequence, release hormones into the blood and interact with the many nerves that innervate them. The particular cells she studies respond to stress, including elevated levels of carbon dioxide and decreased levels of oxygen, but scientists are unsure what their ultimate purpose is. “They might serve as oxygen sensors at birth,” says Domnik. “They’ve been linked to numerous pathologies, and it’s been suggested that they might be implicated somehow in SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]. We understand a lot about the form and structure of these cells but now we’re trying to make the functional link; what are these cells ultimately for?”
Recently, Domnik won the Dr. Travel Award to attend an experimental biology conference being held in San Diego later this month by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The entry criteria included: a single diagram; a one page description of the graduate student’s research and its relevance, delivered in an accessible way to a nonscientific audience; and a summary of the findings. “It’s the classic ‘tell it to your parents’ test,” muses Domnik. (You can read the blog post here).
This is a test Domnik wouldn’t have passed, she thinks, until she had to condense and translate her work for the contest. But challenges like this are not merely incidental to graduate research, in her estimation, rather, they’re at the foundation of its value. “Regardless of your career aspirations or your subject matter,” reflects Domnik, “you learn a lot about the way you work through grad school. You gain skills—like time management and the ability to critically appraise and evaluate things—that are applicable no matter what you end up doing.”
While at Queen’s, Domnik has also taken up extracurricular opportunities. Currently, she is the graduate representative for the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, and for the last five years she has been a member of Momentum A Cappella Vocal Group. In fact, Domnik is now the longest–standing member. The group performs two major concerts and numerous smaller ones every year, the most recent of which drew about a hundred people to St. James’ church. Growing up, Domnik played piano and guitar. “There were few performance opportunities when I was an undergraduate for non–Bachelor of Music students, but Momentum was created in my fourth year of undergrad and I joined right away,” recollects Domnik. “We try to perform something for everyone—for anyone who might be in our audience. We sing classical, jazz standards, and pop. Recently, we did renditions of Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Imagine Dragons’ ‘Radioactive.’”
The lesson Domnik draws from these varied experiences, from expected degree milestones, to Tasmanian trips, to performing for audiences, is to see yourself in the opportunities you find around you. “It takes a little effort,” she says, “but if you just read the notices that get sent your way, pay attention to what’s on offer, there are all kinds of possibilities open to you as a grad student.”
Studying Oyster Spats - from left to right
(L) The non-invasive heart rate recording rig at the University of Tasmania, showing the microscope and a spat (visualized by the microscope) on the right computer screen.
(M) Close-up of a slightly older/larger oyster spat (approximate diameter of spat shown: 2 mm)
(R) Close-up of an even older/larger oyster spat (approximate diameter of spat shown: 4 mm)
Photo article middle right - Assisting with field research (salmon) in Tasmania.