I was recently asked by a number of people that I have met how I got started at the MS Society. Many were surprised to hear that I used to do MS research with all that you think of, the white lab coat, closed toe shoes and the ever important gloves.
My journey to the MS Society of Canada begins with the cell. The basic unit of all living organisms, the cell is an important and powerful thing. Cells make up tissues, and tissues comprise organs. Cells enable life, but to do so they need to perform very specific functions. While a student at Western University in London, I became interested in how cells behave. More specifically, I wanted to know how cells talk to one another, which they need to do in order to function and grow. In pursuit of my interests, I found myself wanting to be a cell expert. I knew that to become a cell expert, I had to continue my studies. Following completion of my undergraduate degree, I applied to a PhD program to study cell biology at the University of Ottawa. There I found myself in a lab that observed not only cells, but the cells that are most important in multiple sclerosis.
In the years that followed I spent many hours in the lab, learning about the molecular biology of MS and how it affected the Central Nervous System (CNS), comprising the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. I learned that the body attacked the protective insulation surrounding nerve cells – called the myelin sheath – exposing the cells to damage.
The purpose of my study was to try and understand how we can get the cells that make myelin (oligodendrocytes) to communicate with one another and restore the myelin that is damaged by MS. Over and over again, in my papers and presentations, I would start every presentation saying that MS is a disease which affects the CNS, resulting in the breakdown of the myelin sheath and ultimately leading to motor and co-ordination issues in people with MS. This definition of MS was the one I knew and stuck by, the one I so deeply wanted to understand at the microscopic level. I didn’t know that I would one day see MS in a whole different light, and that the definition of MS was not as simple as I thought it was.
I was in my apartment in Ottawa one day preparing scientific reports and drawing up diagrams that explained the role of different cells in MS. I remember looking out my window and seeing a group of people participating in the MS Walk. It instantly hit me that I didn’t know a single person in the Walk, or a single person affected by MS for that matter. And there I was, studying the disease to very last detail, knowing how it affects the body but not really aware of how it affects the person.
I realized at that moment that I wanted to get more involved in the MS community, and so I reached out to the MS Society Ottawa chapter where a friendly lady named Laurel helped me get started as a volunteer. Knowing I had a science background, Laurel and the team at the Ottawa chapter had me doing everything from writing up columns about MS in chapter publications, to speaking at events in the neighbourhood. I met many great people, including those who are affected by MS.
These experiences changed the way I viewed MS. It made me witness the impact of the work I was doing, helped me put a face to my research. Most importantly, being a volunteer and working so closely with people affected by MS made me reframe my thinking of MS. The definition of MS as I saw it was not so black and white. It wasn’t just about nerve cells, inflammation and cell communication. MS is a story of uncertainty, a balancing act, a bout of fatigue and pain. MS is also motivation, a narrative of hope and courage, a test of strength and limitations. Connecting with people affected by MS gave a whole new perspective of what MS really is.
Now as the Vice-President of Research at the MS Society, I try my best to sustain the relationships I’ve built with people in the MS community, while creating new ones. These relationships constantly inspire me, and remind me that people with MS are at the centre of what we do and are the driving force behind our cause and mission.
Are you involved with the MS Society? Share your story of how you got started in the comments section below!
Photos (top to bottom)
1. Me in the lab cutting mouse brain tissue by the micron
2. Me as a young graduate student volunteering at the MS Society Ottawa Chapter