Two Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) funded research trainees are up for ASTech awards

Sep. 23, 2016

Ryan Lewinson & Jessica Luc, 2016 ASTech award nominees

Each year the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation celebrates and honours the achievements of individuals from across the province with awards in 13 categories that are sector specific and span the areas of leadership and innovation.

This year two Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) funded research trainees are up for the honours. We checked in with the two nominiees – Jessica Luc and Ryan Lewinson – in advance of the award ceremony on October 28 in Edmonton. Their stories show that the future of research and innovation in Alberta is in good hands.

Jessica Luc

Edmontonian Jessica Luc is a 22-year-old, third year medical student at the University of Alberta. A participant in the AIHS 2011 Heritage Youth Researcher Summer (HYRS) program, Jessica was inspired by her experience and became very active in research.

For the past four years she’s worked with cardiothoracic surgeon—and former AIHS funded trainee—Dr. Jayan Nagendran to study ex-vivo lung perfusion, which is a technology used to preserve donor lungs awaiting transplant.

“The idea is that we could take damaged donor lungs that would otherwise not be used, put them on the machine, fix them and evaluate them before we transplant back into a recipient,” says Jessica. “Currently, one in three people in need of lung transplants die waiting for donor lungs.”

To help address the shortage of donated organs, Jessica is working to introduce a formal organ donation curriculum to medical schools across Canada in 2017.

This is only the tip of the research iceberg for the future surgeon. Among other projects, she is working with two more University of Alberta cardiothoracic surgeons on studies relating to coronary artery bypass grafting surgery in the elderly and mechanical heart technology. She is collaborating with a researcher at the Mayo Clinic to summarize evidence that would help improve heart failure therapy and a University of Texas researcher to create more effective learning experiences for cardiothoracic surgery trainees.

“My parents were the ones that taught me how to study and gave me a thirst for knowledge,” she says. “My career goal as a physician is to make sure patients get the best quality of care they can. As a researcher, I hope to continue my research passions and work on translating knowledge from the bench to bedside. And as an educator, I hope to teach others as I have been taught and find ways to do this most efficiently and effectively for future generations.”

Jessica is also one of Alberta’s Top 30 under 30 in 2014 and a founding member of a non-profit student organization called Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful (BYOKOB) focused on raising awareness about eating disorders, bullying and mental illness.

She realizes that it’s not enough just to do the research – she also felt the need to go out into the world and lend a helping hand. “I believe that as a medical student and a future medical professional, we need to innovate and work towards making the future better for all, and work on tackling the problems that are apparent in our society,” she says.

See Jessica’s ASTech nomination profile.

Ryan Lewinson

Born and raised in Ontario, 27-year-old Ryan Lewinson earned his PhD in biomedical engineering, and is currently a medical student at the University of Calgary.

During his undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa, he conducted research on snow shovelling biomechanics with the goal of preventing the type of lower back injury that affects thousands of Canadians each year. This received international attention, and was featured in the Wall Street Journal. While in Ottawa, he also worked with Ottawa Public Health where he led physical activity interventions and helped with the H1N1 emergency response.

He moved to Calgary in 2010 for his MD-PhD training, and received an AIHS MD-PhD studentship, along with numerous other accolades.

With Dr. Darren Stefanyshyn and Dr. Jay Worobets (Nike Inc.), Ryan led engineering experiments and clinical trials that resulted in his invention of a patented technology to help people with knee osteoarthritis and patellofemoral pain, also known as “runner’s knee.”

“One strategy to reduce the knee load that is often the cause of these conditions is with a footwear insole,” says Ryan. “The problem is how do we know what kind of insole will work for a given patient? Our technology uses an image-based system to very rapidly and accurately predict the correct insole on a patient-by-patient basis, which we believe will lead to improved clinical outcomes.”

Ryan is currently continuing his research on footwear, aiming to bring his invention to market, and has taken on additional projects related to inflammatory arthritis and psoriasis.

This global recognition, along with an entrepreneurial streak, has led him to set up his own research consulting firm called glacierRx. “We work with industry to make new scientific or technological discoveries and aid in their translation to market and clinical practice.”

A passion for research and helping patients has also enabled Ryan to carve out a clear path for the future. “As a clinician-scientist, I plan to divide my time between developing new technologies and treatments as a researcher, and applying these new therapies to my own clinical practice to provide patients with the best possible care.”

See Ryan’s ASTech nomination profile.

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The importance of training researchers

Luc and Lewinson represent young Alberta research trainees and medical innovators. It’s evident they couldn’t have come this far without support from the existing Alberta research community or from funding from organizations like Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, among others.

“I was so excited when I got into the AIHS HYRS program. It gave me the chance to experience real research in a real lab,” said Jessica. “People like my HYRS mentor, Dr. Sandra Davidge, who opened her lab and mentored younger people like me, are really important. Down the road when we compete for research funding, you’re always asked about your experience and you will never forget your roots of where you started. This level of trainee support gives AIHS funded trainees the edge they would otherwise not have had.”

Ryan shared similar sentiments: “I would have a very hard time pursuing my schooling and my research without the AIHS awards that I have. The AIHS MD-PhD award is one-of-a-kind in Canada, and this puts Alberta in a really unique position to attract world-class students.”

Jessica Luc and Ryan Lewinson are showing that quality research is alive and well in Alberta.