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Allison Guitor

PhD student (antibiotic resistance)
McMaster University
Allison Guitor in her lab at McMaster University.

Allison Guitor in her lab at McMaster University.

Allison Guitor in her lab at McMaster University.

Allison Guitor in her lab at McMaster University.

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I study antibiotic resistance, which is what makes bacteria able to live in the presence of antibiotics.

About me

I was born/grew up in: Ottawa, Ontario

I now live in: Oakville, Ontario

I completed my training/education at:  I have a BSc. in biology from the University of Waterloo and I am working on my PhD. at McMaster University.

What I do at work

As a PhD student, my weeks typically revolve around working on experiments. These experiments address specific projects in my overall thesis work. I use microbiology, molecular biology, and computer science skills and techniques in my research.

Some days I will be in the lab, working with bacteria. I extract their DNA and try to decode their genomes. To do this, I use sequencing technologies. Other days, I work at my computer analysing data and writing code to automate various processes. I have special equipment in the lab that allows me to generate sequencing data. In addition, I have a powerful computer to helps me analyse this big data rapidly. I study antibiotic resistance, which is what makes bacteria able to live in the presence of antibiotics. I am working on a new way to detect antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Whether it's troubleshooting a bug in my code, or a step in an experiment, a big part of doing a PhD is problem solving. When I run into a problem in my work, I have people I can ask for advice. But most solutions come from reading papers and doing research into how others overcame similar challenges in the past. Being able to understand the theory behind certain laboratory techniques, and my training through a biology undergraduate degree, help me make decisions in my research.

A great part of doing a PhD is working in a group with other students and researchers. I am mentored and trained by my supervisor Dr. Gerry Wright. I also work in a team of about 20 people who come from different STEM backgrounds. We are always learning from each other and collaborating on various initiatives in the research group. Outside of working hours, we enjoy playing in a community softball league. We have a great sense of community.

My career path is

In high school, I really enjoyed math, chemistry, and biology. I heard about a program called Bioinformatics at the University of Waterloo. It combined elements from all these subjects as well as Computer Science. Despite not having any computer science training, I decided to take this program. Unfortunately, I struggled with my computer science courses. I changed to a more Biology-focused program. This ended up suiting me much better.

During my undergraduate degree, I had various co-op placements. I’ve worked at Environment Canada, The Public Health Agency of Canada, The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and The Hospital for Sick Children. These experiences helped me discover my passion for research and microbiology.

I started as a Master's student at McMaster University. I had planned to study the biochemistry of antibiotic resistance proteins. My supervisor challenged me with a project that was focused on molecular biology. It also had a computational component. Little did I know, I would be returning to the field of bioinformatics!

At that point, I was better prepared to learn the concepts and skills required to code and analyse data. Despite what I consider an initial failure during my undergraduate studies, I am proud to have learned a diverse set of skills through my inter-disciplinary research as a Master's and now PhD student.

I am motivated by

I get excited when a hypothesis I have is correct, and I arrive at the solution to a question! However, it can also be motivating when things do not go as planned. I can end up with another, perhaps more exciting, question in my research. I really enjoy learning from others and hearing about their successes in their research. That is one of the advantages of working in a multi-disciplinary STEM environment.

It is also exciting to know that, in my research, I am discovering parts of science and life that no one before me has known. It might be a small aspect of one process of life. However, the future implications of this information are unknown. I have always enjoyed puzzles. A big part of being a researcher is coming to a solution to various challenges. I also have the opportunity to mentor students in the lab. It is very rewarding to see their progress over a few months. It’s also great that I get to celebrate their successes. This aspect of teaching is one of the reasons I love being in a STEM-related field and volunteering with Let's Talk Science.

How I affect people’s lives

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are threatening modern medicine. I hope my research will someday affect the lives and health of others. I have always wanted to use my understanding of sciences to help others. I have a very specific knowledge base. I can ask relevant scientific questions. I hope that this will lead to a path to find an answer that will help further health research and medical practices.

Part of being a scientist is being able to communicate that science to others. I hope, through my career, I can teach and inform the public about my work.

Outside of work I

Outside of work, I enjoy getting outdoors, going for hikes, and playing sports like soccer and softball. I also volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Hamilton. I was a coordinator with Let's Talk Science at McMaster University for two years, and I will continue to volunteer during my final year of studies. I also love to bake, especially when there is a crowd to enjoy it! I am the Birthday Cake Baker for our lab.

My advice to others

Try to expose yourself to as many different academic and career experiences as early as possible. This will help you can get a sense of what you are passionate about. Do not be afraid to change your mind. If your first choice is not making you happy, look into changing. It's never too late.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Math
  • Science
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Liked helping people
  • Played on a sports team
  • Engaged in volunteer activities
  • Liked reading
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Wasn't sure what I wanted to do

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