by Meredith Dault, July 2010
When Dan Mulder told his parents he wanted to do his undergraduate degree at Queen's they were more than a little excited: they were prepared. "They started pulling out all this Queen's stuff they had bought months ago," he recalls with a laugh, remembering the shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia that he was feted with. "Clearly they had wanted me to go to Queen's!"
Now a second year PhD candidate in the department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Mulder, 25, says Queen's "feels like home" to him. That's because being at Queen's is a family affair. His parents, who grew up in Kingston (they met in high school), both studied at Queen's. His mother studied nursing, while his father pursued chemistry and medicine.
When he started his undergraduate degree in 2003, Mulder was instantly part of a strong community. "It turns out that my parents had been taught by some of the professors that I was being taught by," he says. On campus with his parents one day, Mulder says they ran into a professor. "He used to be the head of the anatomy department - and he remembered my dad! It had been 30 years, but they recognized one another!" he laughs.
But it wasn't family connections that got Dan Mulder where he is today. It was pure persistence. Mulder studies eosinophilic esophagitis, a disease of the esophagus that affects both children and adults. People who suffer from it have trouble swallowing. "Sometimes food literally gets stuck," he says, explaining that the disease didn't formally exist before the early 1990s. "We are interested in what causes this disease, and why it just appeared...and what we can do to help people."
His interest in the subject started when he was in the third year of his undergraduate degree, Mulder started looking around for a fourth year thesis project. He talked to a number of professors and ended up clicking with one -- his current supervisor, Dr. Chris Justinich -- only he wasn't taking on any new students. "He didn't have room for me," says Mulder, "because he'd already taken on two students. So I went back and repeatedly bothered him and his secretary until he gave me a summer job. And then he said, ‘ok, you can stay for a fourth year project!'"
As soon as he was finished his undergraduate degree, Mulder swiftly started on a Master's degree. "I basically wrote my last exam, and then woke the next day and started," he recalls. Not surprisingly, his Master's supervisor, Dr. Ron Easteal, had also taught his parents. When he finished his second degree, Mulder decided to continue his work at Queen's.
Mulder says that eosinophilic esophagitis is becoming more common - there are now more than 160 patients in Kingston, up from 1 in 1999. He greatly enjoys his work, particularly in finding ways to help patients feel better. "The weird thing about this disease is that it doesn't seem to have a single trigger, like a classic allergic reaction" Mulder explains. "But the nice thing is that my research can help patients with their symptoms, which also helps them get over the social burden that comes with gastrointestinal symptoms. It helps motivate me when I know that people are being doubly helped."
Mulder, who recently won the Professor's Prize in Anatomy (awarded to the top graduate student in the department) and a scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, hopes to find a job as a professor in the future. "You get to teach and do research," he says enthusiastically. "And I love the problem solving aspects of research. I have a real passion for that."