MIRC would like to welcome Dr. Amy Gillgrass, who is joining the centre as an Assistant Professor and initiating a research program focusing on studying HIV/TB co-infections. Dr. Gillgrass brings years of valuable expertise and knowledge in immunology, with a diverse background in infection and immunity as well as cancer research.
After completing her Master of Science under the supervision of Dr. W.J. Miller, Dr. Gillgrass joined Dr. Kaushic’s lab as a research assistant, where she primarily worked on studying the impact of hormones on viral infections in the female genital tract. From there, she completed her PhD under the supervision of Dr. Ali Ashkar, with a focus on stimulating the immune system to fight cancer. During her graduate studies, Dr. Gillgrass was the recipient of several prestigious awards including the NSERC-Canada Postgraduate Scholarship A, the D.C. Russell Memorial Scholarship, the CIHR Frederick Banting and Charles Best Graduate Scholarship Award (Doctoral), and the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Fellowship (Doctoral). Dr. Gillgrass’ passion for immuno-oncology led her to complete a translational postdoctoral fellowship in the Department of Oncology under the supervision of Dr. Anita Bane. She continued her funding success by obtaining the highly competitive Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation Fellowship (Post-Doctoral). Along with pursuing research, Dr. Gillgrass spent a lot of time teaching in various capacities at McMaster University. Her breadth of experience spans both academia and industry, as she was recently a Scientist for Turnstone Biologics. MIRC is honoured to have Dr. Gillgrass join us as a new faculty member.
I began as a 4th year undergraduate thesis student with Manel Jordana in 1996. I was initially planning to go to medical school, but after a few months in the lab, I was enjoying myself so much that I decided to put that off and continue in graduate school knowing that I could always come back and try medicine later; the academic career path proved really rewarding and exciting for me, and medicine fell off my radar. After starting the MedSci MSc program in 1997, I transferred into the PhD stream in 1999 and defended my degree in 2003, all with Manel’s lab group, with a focus on looking at how cytokine expression in the airways influenced the development of allergic sensitization.
After finishing my PhD I did a post-doc at UCLA looking at how air pollutants could trigger allergic sensitization, an area I found really compelling to work in. I then got the opportunity to become one of the first faculty members at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and leapt at the opportunity to come back home to Ontario. I started my research career there leading my own lab, where we looked at air pollution effects on the immune system (particularly autoimmune disease and allergy) and respiratory function more generally, and taking our geographical context into account by looking at airborne particulates from Sudbury (which are high in nickel and other metal compounds), and studying forest fire fighters. After several years, I began to invest more of my energy into doing some medical education research, and developing a long-standing interest in sex/gender and health research – in the last 10 years or so I’ve wound down my lab-based work and focused principally on the scholarship of sex/gender and laboratory research, along with some work in critical pedagogy in health sciences education. I am the most excited about my work on sex/gender and lab research because I feel I’ve found a niche where I can make a unique contribution, as someone who has a depth of first-hand experience in the laboratory, and who also has a depth of engagement with feminist scholarship on sex, gender, and science. 3 years ago, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to return to McMaster as the Assistant Dean of the Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours) Program, a program Del Harnish had been getting up and running when I was a grad student, and where I had the opportunity to teach between my PhD and post-doc. On the educational and administrative side of things, I am most excited by getting to teach my course on sex, gender, and health, working with great colleagues on the BHSc program curriculum, and interacting with students in the program to help smooth the bumps in their path. It’s a really rewarding combination of activities for me.
There was a confluence of several factors and key moments that led me to where I am. Doing a minor in philosophy as an undergrad proved to be pretty significant, because it introduced me to important concepts in the theory of knowledge, bioethics, and feminist theory, all of which reverberate in my current scholarship and teaching. Then my 4th year thesis in Manel’s lab was a big turning point – prior to that I didn’t think I had any interest in research and my heart was set on medicine; Manel was a great mentor to me, opened my eyes to the joys of an academic career, and helped me to reconsider whether medicine was really right for me. As a graduate student, I really enjoyed my opportunities to TA, which convinced me even more that I would enjoy a career as a professor, and getting to teach in the BHSc Program after I completed my PhD cemented that even more. As my career unfolded, I found that the parts I found most rewarding were related to sex/gender and health research, and to teaching, and I began to shift my energies into those things, and wound down the laboratory. I was so lucky to get the chance to come back to McMaster in 2015 and step into the BHSc Program, as it is such a good fit for my interests and strengths.
Being a student in the MIRC group was an important and formative influence on me. There was a very collaborative and collegial spirit among the investigators that spilled over to the students, and we all worked together in important ways. Journal clubs, work-in-progress rounds, and allergy & immunology seminars gave me a lot of exposure to different areas of immunology research beyond my own work in allergy, and there were lots of students around with other eclectic interests as well that kept me intellectually stimulated. My supervisor got all of us actively involved in helping to write and review grants and papers, so I had a fair amount of experience with that by the time I had to write my own grants.
There are so many! Going to the American Thoracic Society conferences with a big ‘delegation’ from MIRC, the trips for white water rafting and Canada’s Wonderland, and all of the times we’d be working in the lab together talking about books and movies and philosophy and politics – some of my best friends in the world are from my grad school days at MIRC. If I had to choose one favourite though, it would be the time I pulled a prank on Manel and set up his computer so that every time he launched Microsoft Word, the audio would play a 2-minute clip of him giving a talk at a conference. He had no idea what was going on or how to fix it, LOL. Also when I put a supersoaker in the 4C room and then drenched him with it.
Grad school is such a unique time, take full advantage of what the university environment has to offer, and explore. You need to work and be productive in the lab of course, but life as a scholar is so much more rich and full when you can connect the dots between your scientific work and the broader social and political culture, and develop a good balance between work and leisure.