The science bug bit Dawn Bowdish during a co-operative education program she took in high school. Now, she’s fighting the bugs that cause infectious diseases.
“I study a kind of white blood cell — because our white blood cells are our immune response — called a macrophage. They are important because they’re the white blood cells that are associated with initial detection and, hopefully, defeat of pathogens,” she said.
Bowdish, 33, is an assistant professor of pathology and molecular medicine, appointed to the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. In the Hamilton native’s research, she focuses on the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, and streptococcus pneumonia, which causes lung and ear infections and meningitis
The career of a health researcher is not suited for those keen to take the educational fast track — an undergraduate degree won’t cut it.
Bowdish started at the University of Guelph, obtaining a bachelor of science in microbiology, and then acquired her PhD in microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia, followed by post-doctoral training at the University of Oxford in Oxford, U.K.
“It’s a very meandering trail of degrees you have to follow,” said Bowdish, who noted her path conforms to the basic outline of someone in her position, save for the post-doctoral training, which could last between six months and any number of decades. “You have to be committed to your education,” she said.
Commitment continues to be key throughout a researcher’s career. While Bowdish said making some kind of discovery is rewarding, it’s getting to that point that’s the hard part. “Science can be repetitive and frustrating,” she said. “A macrophage is a particularly difficult cell to work on, so often you can literally spend months, sometimes years, just getting your experiment to work. That can be absolutely devastating!”
And although Bowdish describes her dream day as one being spent wholly in the lab, she said much of her day is consumed by necessary administrative tasks. “In reality, I spend a lot of my time writing grants — asking the government or various charities for money, basically, to do the research. I also spend a lot of time writing up my research so that it’s published and other researchers will become aware of it.”
Bowdish wants awareness of her work to eventually mark her as Canada’s foremost macrophage biologist and, in the long term, to develop anti-infective therapies to treat infectious diseases. And despite the frustrations she faces in the form of paperwork and repetition, she holds, “The thrill of discovery makes it all worthwhile.”