Three weeks after defending her PhD, Laura Russell packed two suitcases and boarded a plane to the Golden State, ready to launch her career. She made the move across the continent to take a job in the drug development industry in California.
And all in the midst of a global pandemic.
“When COVID-19 hit, it gave me a chance to really examine what I wanted to do next,” she said. “I think all five years of my PhD led me to what I’m doing now.”
A lover of hiking and travel with a deep interest in understanding how things work, Russell says she is most proud of the fact that she’s always followed a path of curiosity and finds time to pursue the things that bring her joy. Some of her most important moments of clarity came while staring out at the scenery from the top of a mountain side, or hiking solo through dense forest.
Beginning her postsecondary education, majoring in both French and science, Russell spent two semesters studying in Nice, France. Interested in the French language, she was also fascinated by science, specifically the interplay between physiology and medications, and how chemicals could alter the physiology of the body to change the course of disease.
It was while travelling through Europe during her exchange that she settled on pharmacology as her area of interest. “I grew up a lot on that exchange and thought a lot about my future,” she said.
She completed her PhD studies supervised by Dr. Richard Kim, whose lab specializes in pharmacogenetics and precision medicine. Russell’s project looked specifically at a protein in the liver called NTCP that acts as a drug transporter, bringing drugs from the bloodstream into the liver.
Using cells and a mouse model, she explored how genetics might play a role in the action of this transporter and influence how much drug stays in the bloodstream. She studied this effect on a cholesterol-lowering drug which is known to cause muscle pain and weakness in some patients.
“If a mutation makes the transporter not work at all, you might end up with more of the drug in the blood stream, which can increase the risk of side effects,” she explained. “This is important because the effects can be severe enough in patients that they stop taking the drug, which may increase their risk of cholesterol-related disease, including cardiovascular complications.”
The knowledge base she gained from working with Kim in precision medicine provided her with a perfect skillset to work in industry, but the soft skills she learned were just as valuable, she said.
“Doing graduate training at Western allowed me take advantage of additional learning opportunities to explore education that was in line with my interests in industry and pharmacology. Working in the lab also taught me patience and problem-solving, because things don’t always work out the way you want them to, and Dr. Kim encouraged me to always find ways to move forward.”
Her research attracted international attention and she jumped at every opportunity to present her findings at conferences and learn from other scientists. She used the conferences as ways to pursue her passions – she honed her ability to speak confidently about her research and took the opportunity to tack on a few extra days to get out into nature in each new environment.
The most memorable was a 70-kilometre, three-day solo hike around Mount Hood in Portland, Oregon.
“One of the best things about hiking is that I don’t think about anything else,” she reflected. “My mind is just blank in the best way. It is quiet and peaceful, and I can spend time just enjoying my surroundings.”
She also used opportunities at conferences to network with professionals working in jobs that interested her, to learn more about their careers and journeys.
“Networking and mentorship have been a huge part of my graduate training journey,” she said. “Neither of my parents did graduate training, so it was all really intimidating. Being able to seek out guidance from others in the field gave me more confidence.”
Networking helped her land a four-month internship at Genentech, a pharmaceutical company, during the third year of her PhD. It was during this internship that her interest in working in industry was piqued. Her supervisor at the time opened her eyes to the possibilities for creativity and innovation that exist in industry-related research.
“I enjoyed the continual learning, and was encouraged to come up with research questions that I wanted to answer while I was there. It allowed me to see the opportunities for flexibility and creativity that exist outside of academia.”
It was also through networking at a conference that she was connected with her current employer, Theravance BioPharma, where she is researching organ-specific medications, focused on how to maximize therapies for lung diseases like asthma, COPD, and the lung inflammation seen in COVID-19 patients. They are investigating how inhaled therapeutics might provide better outcomes rather than those taken orally.
“We want to maximize the amount of drug in the lung and minimize the amount that ends up in the bloodstream,” she explained.
And while finding answers to these research questions in her work excites and interests her every day, she also makes time to get out and explore the California landscape.
“It’s really important to me to keep a good balance in my life of the things I love. It’s easy to get too focused on your career, and while it’s important to enjoy that too, that balance is key.”