To Catch a Culprit

Maya Shmulevitz specializes in oncolytic viruses - ones with the ability to kill cancer cells

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You wouldn’t expect them to be beautiful. But under the microscope, they look like a field of interlocking flower petals, or thousands of conjoined sapphires, sharp-edged but delicate. “These are mouse tumour cells,” says Dr. Maya Shmulevitz. She’s sitting in front of the microscope in her lab at the University of Alberta’s Katz Group Centre. To her, the cluster of cells looks more like a mosaic, or the kind of design you’d draw on the edge of your paper in school while your teacher was talking. She can come up with a dozen ways to describe them.

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LAB LIFE: Shmulevitz finds a creative outlet in her work with oncolytic viruses.
Photo by Aaron Pederson, 3ten

Shmulevitz and her research, like the cells under her microscope, are not what you’d expect. The 38-year-old researcher is never more excited or enthusiastic than when she’s talking about her favourite subject: viruses.

“Viruses are amazing because they’re so small, and they’ve got such little bits of information, and they can do so many amazing things,” she says. Shmulevitz’s research is focused on one group of viruses in particular: reovirus. Unlike the ones most of us are familiar with, reovirus typically doesn’t cause illness. It belongs to a group called oncolytic viruses that replicate inside cancer cells, killing them. These are the facts, but Shmulevitz says she also tries to explain more complicated scientific processes with metaphors. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much.

When Shmulevitz joined the University of Alberta as an associate professor with the department of medical microbiology and immunology in 2011, it was the latest step in a lifelong love affair with science. Although she also considered pursuing a career in journalism, Shmulevitz displayed an affinity for the sciences early on, dissecting the fish her mother would make for dinner. It was hardly a surprise when she enrolled in the University of Alberta’s biochemistry program, where she became heavily involved in lab work and research even as an undergraduate. She travelled to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago to work as a research assistant on the Human Genome Project, which, at that time, was sequencing the human genome for the first time. Shmulevitz enjoyed the work because it was creative and demanding, but her true scientific love was viruses, so she headed to Dalhousie University in Halifax to pursue a PhD in molecular virology. “It was really the best time of my life,” she says. “My non-science friends would make fun of me because I lived in the lab. I would be there day and night, but I just loved it.”

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UP CLOSE: Shmulevitz’s mouse tumour cells.

After a stint at the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization and taking some time off to have a child, she returned to Dalhousie for a postdoctoral fellowship working under Dr. Patrick Lee, another University of Alberta alumnus. It was Lee who first discovered oncolytic properties of the reovirus in 1995, and Shmulevitz describes her lab as a continuation of his work. Where Lee was investigating how and why reovirus replicated in cancer cells, Shmulevitz and her students are trying to find ways to make the virus more effective. That’s especially relevant now, since the Calgary-based company Oncolytics Biotech is in the process of clinical trials to develop reovirus as a human cancer therapeutic.

While Shmulevitz loves the science and is fascinated by viruses, research isn’t the only thing she enjoys. When she’s not in her office or at the lab, Shmulevitz says her hobbies include playing with Lego with her eight-year-old son, Ronin. “I love being a parent because there’s even a science to it. I enjoy just watching him. If you enjoy science, you can’t not enjoy having a child, because you see the truth,” she says. And while she’s not sure if Ronin will take after her and become a scientist, she’s enchanted by his curiosity. Like her, he looks for ways to experiment and to explain the world. “It’s not uncommon for me to come home at night and go to brush my teeth, and in the bathroom is this cup, frothing at the top with toothpaste and there’s rocks in there, and a little note from him that says, ‘Please don’t touch. I’m waiting to see what happens.’ ”

She’s not pushing her son to go into science – he is, after all, only eight – but Shmulevitz spends much of her time at the Katz Group Centre trying to mould young undergraduate students into talented researchers.

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TIME TO TEACH: Making an effort with students like Adil Mohamed, recipient of the Alberta Cancer Foundation graduate studentship, is of special interest to Shmulevitz.
Photo by Aaron Pederson, 3ten

“I think one of the keys is finding mentors who inspire you,” Shmulevitz says, who adds she was encouraged by both Lee and Dr. Roy Duncan, another Dalhousie researcher. That certainly plays a part at Shmulevitz’s lab, where she embraces her role as an educator for the students she works with. She seems to have passed on her own enthusiasm for science, because in mid-December, although the lab is closed for exams, there are still students working at the benches. Shmulevitz is eager to explain their projects and show off their work and encourages them to show off for visitors. Dr. David Evans, chair of the department of medical microbiology and immunology, describes Shmulevitz as researcher with a gift for teaching.

“She has a good sense of the struggles that students face when they try to get their minds around some of the research in the first place,” he says. “It’s not dead obvious when they walk into our field, and it’s often very difficult for students to make the leap from textbook knowledge to actually applying it. She has a good understanding of those difficulties and is good at helping students overcome them.”

Shmulevitz is also the ultimate optimist, and even finds pleasure in the paperwork most scientists dread. “There’s all kind of bureaucracy and things are changing rapidly in the grant funding field. There are lots of things that drive people crazy in our business these days, and through it all, Maya continues to be an optimist and continues to make progress,” says Evans. In fact, Shmulevitz says she actually enjoys grant applications because it gives her an outlet to write, something she once considered doing professionally.

It’s that optimism that defines Shmulevitz. She’s the kind of scientist who can wax poetic about tumour cells and come up with novel ways to explain complex ideas until she hits on the one that will do the trick.

5 Questions

As an undergraduate, you worked on the Human Genome Project. What was that like?
It was creative. It was trying to find tools to make something work. I liked the idea that you’d have to go home every day and think, “OK, this didn’t work, so how can I change it?” It was very inventive.

You practically lived in the lab when you were doing your PhD, but what did you do for fun?
Every Wednesday, there was this professor of philosophy at another college nearby. He did philosophy for the people, so he’d advertise in the paper, “Let’s meet at this cafe. I’ll bring a topic and anyone can come – let’s just talk about it.” Sometimes it got heated, depending on the topic, and it was a fun way to think of things outside of the lab.

Where did your son’s name, Ronin, come from?
There’s a movie called Ronin, and somebody asked, “Have you seen the movie?” I hadn’t heard of it. I just liked the name. I thought about some science names. For a girl I thought Valence, like valence electron, would be cool. I thought Pipette would be cute – but those ones didn’t go over well with Matt, my partner.

What does your son think about your work?
He doesn’t want to be a scientist, but he’s only eight. Right now he thinks it would be really cool to work for Lego, so he wrote a letter to Lego asking, “What would it take for somebody to work for Lego?” They wrote him back and said he might want to consider an engineering degree, and told him the things he would need to work for Lego.

What do your students tease you about?
My students always make fun of me for my use of metaphors. I try to use metaphors quite often; it’s my favourite thing to do to try to explain concepts because sometimes it helps to imagine things. But it’s hit and miss. Honestly, 50 per cent of the time, everybody just stares at me and the whole room goes silent. It’s good for
a laugh.

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