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Graduating neuroscience student transforms personal setbacks into life-changing opportunities

Standout neuroscience grad hopes to affect major changes in spinal cord injury treatment
November 10, 2016
Rhiannon Brett hopes to change lives through her passion for neuroscience and researching new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries. Photo by Riley Brant, University of Calgary

Rhiannon Brett hopes to change lives through her passion for neuroscience and researching new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries. Photo by Riley Brant, University of Calgary

Rhiannon Brett's passion for neuroscience was, quite literally, knocked into her.

A competitive soccer player throughout high school, Brett suffered several concussions, which eventually ended her soccer career and left her with post-concussion syndrome resulting in chronic migraines. Rather than being defeated, she channelled her energies into a new passion: "It was through getting concussions, and through that recovery, that I ended up interested in neuroscience," she says. After doing her own research into the field, she discovered the Bachelor of Science in neuroscience program at the Faculty of Science.

Athletic background inspires foray into spinal cord injury research

Despite a tough start to her undergraduate studies — another concussion six weeks into her first year forced her to take the rest of that semester off — she came back at full force and made the most of her time as an undergraduate. Inspired by her soccer background, Brett started locomotor research in Patrick Whelan's lab at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in the summer after her second year, focusing on spinal cord injury and repair.

Brett's research in the Whelan Lab may help provide new treatments for people with spinal cord injuries. Much of her research has involved figuring out the mechanisms required for walking. "I can see us being able to get major treatments for spinal cord injuries within our lifetime," says Brett, who was a PURE Award Recipient in 2015. "I was looking into the ways that different drugs, or molecules that exist in the human body, affect locomotor patterns."

Brett hopes to see major treatments for spinal cord injuries become available in her lifetime, and her work is helping to make this happen. Everything the human body needs for locomotion — or walking — to occur is located in the spinal cord. The brain is only required for an initiation signal. One possible outcome of the research is finding a way to artificially signal the spinal cord to walk. "We've actually been able to provide an initiation signal artificially, and get a model to walk. There are lots of different kinds of spinal cord injuries, but this could be useful for all of them. It's really, really cool," explains Brett.

Exchange leads to opportunity to work with Nobel Prize Committee member

Her enthusiasm and work ethic caught the attention of her instructors, who recommended her to the University of Calgary's new exchange program at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, to complete her honours thesis and final year.

"Rhiannon has been one of our star students in the BSc Neuro program," says neuroscience program director Michael Antle. "The Karolinska Institute is one of the foremost medical schools in the world, and is the location where the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine is awarded. The University of Calgary is strengthened by partnerships with such prestigious international universities, and ambassadors such as Rhiannon help solidify these relationships."

Brett speaks equally highly of the neuroscience program and her instructors, both of which prepared her to excel at the rigorous graduate-level coursework at the Karolinska Institute. "I was the youngest person in the whole building! They were a little bit surprised to see someone so young that actually had the background, because they don't have a Bachelor in Neuroscience in Europe," says Brett, who credits the quality of her undergraduate education for her ability to participate in cutting-edge research.

Under the supervision of Ole Kiehn, the representative for neuroscience on the Nobel Prize Committee, she examined a very specific population of cells in the spinal cord and how they affect locomotion at different speeds. She completed her honours thesis with a perfect score. "It was an amazing learning experience, working in the top lab in my field, and I was proud to be able to produce a high-quality thesis as a result of what I learned."

Motivated by teaching and helping others

The standout student has applied to medical school, and hopes to continue her work in spinal cord injury and repair by specializing in emergency medicine. She says, "I'm really passionate about spinal cord injury, and a lot of what can be done currently about spinal cord injury is in the hour after it happens — so the people who are going to have the most effect on those are emergency medicine doctors. What those doctors do can have an immeasurable effect on the outcomes for patients."

Outside of academics, Brett has been a founding member of several clubs, including the Brainiacs Club, which partners with the Calgary Public Library to teach children aged six through 12 about basic neuroscience and brain safety awareness. She organizes the Run for Little Ones charity run benefiting the Alberta Children's Hospital, and was involved with the Flying Doctors of Canada Campus Club.

"My undergraduate experience as a whole has been the best period of my life," she says. "I was able to meet so many amazing people through the BSc Neuroscience program, the many clubs of which I was a part, and my exchange. I'm looking to take all my experiences and everything I've learned from my undergrad degree forward into medical school."