Biomedical Engineering PhD student Kevin Dick (Photo: Chris Roussakis)

In the fall of 2016, (then) second-year MASc student Kevin Dick embarked on a semester abroad in India with funding from a Mitacs Globalink Research Award. His research aimed to investigate the protein interaction network within Plasmodium falciparum (a parasite which causes the most common and dangerous form of malaria), with hopes of clearing a path for novel discoveries related to the deadly disease. It was during his internship at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay that Kevin uncovered new potential for this research. Upon returning to Carleton University, he began to re-evaluate a proposal put forward a year earlier by his thesis supervisor, Professor James Green. While Kevin had been encouraged by Professor Green, among other faculty, to fast-track towards pursuing a PhD, he originally declined. However, when the offer to fast-track presented itself (again) in 2017, feeling inspired to dive deeper into his research, Kevin took the PhD plunge. We recently connected with the biomedical engineering PhD student to ask about his journey from undergraduate studies in the sciences- to working in the tech industry- to graduate school in engineering, and why he chose to study at Carleton University.

Carleton University: What drew you to biomedical engineering? Could you pinpoint your specific area of study, and why you chose to explore it?

Kevin Dick: I have always held a special fascination for life and the aging process. Having a curiosity for understanding the underlying principles of the natural world, I chose to study biology and computer science in my undergraduate degree, which together provided the context and tools necessary to study the mechanism of life. In order to tame the tremendous complexity of biological systems, computational methods and artificial intelligence have emerged as powerful tools. I am pursuing a Biomedical Engineering degree and specializing in Bioinformatics and Data Science. More specifically, I use machine learning to predict which proteins might interact with others since these insights can help elucidate the manifestation of disease or design therapeutics. Being a polymath, I was drawn to the field of Biomedical Engineering given that it is highly interdisciplinary; my work readily requires collaboration with biologists, biochemists, physicians, physicists, computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

CU: What made you decide to pursue graduate school?

KD: Following my undergraduate studies, I worked in the tech industry which promised career advancement over the next couple of years. While the work was stimulating, I realized that in order to pursue my vision for the future of healthcare, I needed to re-evaluate my expertise and hone my skill set. Graduate studies are the perfect way to apply yourself to a diverse range of projects and obtain highly desirable skills.

CU: Why did you choose Carleton University?

KD: The singular most important consideration when selecting the institution for graduate studies is the relationship with your faculty advisor. While I had anticipated pursuing graduate studies at a number of different institutions, I felt that Carleton University promised the most congenial atmosphere with the greatest opportunities for intellectual freedom, and is a research powerhouse. I am immensely grateful for the support and opportunities afforded to me from my own supervisor, Dr. James Green.

Furthermore, I chose Carleton University for its rich offering of degrees and specializations. In particular, I was lucky to be part of the very first cohort of students in the new Data Science specialization; a highly sought after certification in the tech industry. Concurrently, I pursued the Bioinformatics specialization, together amounting to a one-of-a-kind degree not offered anywhere else in Canada.

CU: Can you elaborate on how you came to find yourself on the ‘fast-track’ towards your PhD?

KD: My story is an uncanny one. My original plans were to return to industry with a newly minted Master’s degree. Having completed my first year of Master’s studies, my supervisor and a few other faculty members suggested that I consider the prospect of fast-tracking. As tantalizing as it was, I was satisfied with the projects I had underway and was about to embark on a research internship in India for four months on a Mitacs Research Grant.

The time I spent in India was wholly rewarding and under the tutelage of Harvard-trained Dr. Swati Patankar, I stumbled upon a new perspective in my research. When I returned to Canada, I investigated these ideas further and found considerable promise. At this point, the question of fast-tracking was again posed and given this new prospective area of research, I was convinced to take the leap down the proverbial rabbit hole.

I believe this exemplifies the trajectory many researchers experience in the pursuit of new knowledge. At times, it seems the research dictates your future rather than the other way around. In the face of the prospect of fast-tracking I initially felt a mixture of apprehension and uncertainty. However, when I established my conviction for a revolutionary new perspective on my research, I felt nothing but confidence and anticipation for its outcome.

Kevin in India, 2016. While there, he was also involved in a project to install lights and solar panels in a village without electricity.

CU: How would you describe your current research? What makes it important?

KD: My research is important for two reasons: it is improving our ability to understand fundamental biological processes which is critical to healthcare applications, and is also reframing the way we study and interpret machine learning predictions in other fields.

To cure diseases, we must first understand the biological pathways that are disrupted to then design and administer therapeutics to rectify the biological abnormalities. My research leverages machine learning to produce comprehensive networks of predicted results (which can comprise millions of results) and then uses a form of data mining to identify the meaningful components. This initiative is meant to speed up the discovery of novel therapeutics and I have recently applied this to a number of organisms including the Zika Virus and Malaria-causing parasites.

Secondly, the same methodology I apply to the study of protein-protein interaction prediction can be applied to a broader set of machine learning problems. I am looking to improve the way we use electronic health records to predict the outcome of diseases in medical patients as well as improve the way we interpret traditional machine learning tasks which can have far-reaching implications beyond biomedical engineering.

CU: Are there resources at Carleton that are instrumental to the execution of your research?

KD: Absolutely! My research requires the use of high performance computing resources: supercomputers! I am fortunate to be a member of the Carleton University Bioinformatics Research group which utilizes a supercomputer in the Dr. Frank Dehne lab. Furthermore, Carleton has a number of on-demand computational resources available to researchers. More generally, my work also utilizes cloud computing resources available to Canadian researchers through Sharcnet and Compute Canada.

Without these, my work would not be possible or require several years’ worth of computational time on a single computer. Carleton University offers the computational resources required in this new age of big data!

CU: What have been the most memorable or rewarding aspects of your experience at Carleton so far?

KD: Two experiences are particularly outstanding: helping to organise the IEEE International Student Conference (ISC) hosted here at Carleton, and embarking on a Mitacs Globalink Research Internship in Mumbai, India.

I had the special privilege of being part of a dedicated team to organise the ISC conference in 2016 which showcased the research profile of the biomedical engineering community here in Ottawa. Beyond being party to the process of organizing a conference, I also hosted a workshop tailored to introducing high school students to biomedical engineering. This conference was internationally recognized by the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and won the “Outstanding Performance Award”.

Secondly, my supervisor supported my application process for a Mitacs Globalink Research Award which enabled me to embark on a four month research internship at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, India. Collaborating with a molecular virology lab, I helped unearth new biological pathways in a variety of malaria-causing parasites.

Both of these experiences have contributed immensely to my personal, academic, and professional development and have forged connections with local and international groups.

CU: Has Carleton paved the way for any valuable industry connections?

KD: Being in Ottawa, Carleton University benefits from the “capital advantage”. I have had the opportunity to collaborate on a broad range of governmental research projects including working as a contract research scientist with both Natural Resources Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada.

As a member of the Carleton University Institute of Data Science, I have presented work at the annual Data Day conference, hosted at Carleton University and which invites local leaders in the tech industry. Furthermore, as an active member/executive in a number of student organizations, I have benefited from various networking opportunities with local, national, and international companies.

CU: Where do you hope your research will take you (and/or perhaps ‘society’, broadly speaking) in the future?

KD: My vision for healthcare is one where all facets of one’s medical record are taken into consideration when determining a diagnosis; from symptoms to genetics. The emergence of big data heralds a new age for creating diagnosis support systems for physicians. Furthermore, the opportunity to offer a universal standard of care through distributed healthcare systems is particularly promising. As an innovator, I also hope to continue pushing the fringe of knowledge in fields beyond biomedical engineering. Whether as an industry research scientist, entrepreneur, or academic, I hope that my research contributes to this vision and the betterment of society as a whole.

CU: Do you have any advice for students thinking of pursuing their PhD in this field, or at Carleton in particular?

KD: Biomedical Engineering is a field ideal for the polymath. It brings together specialists from a broad range of disciplines allowing you to learn about the intricacies of various fields. It is undoubtedly a field rich in opportunity and innovation, where one’s work can meaningfully impact the lives of those around us. Ottawa has a world-renowned community of biomedical engineers and Carleton’s new PhD program will only build upon that reputable foundation.

To those contemplating graduate studies in general: if you consider yourself a visionary, use the time in graduate school to refine that vision. Actively engage yourself in the pursuit of your success and challenge the status quo to find ways to excel beyond what is expected. Understand where the proverbial bar has been previously set and seek to surpass it. Carleton University is known for training change-makers; make your time here truly count!

Kevin Dick alongside fellow Carleton PhD students conducting biomedical research (Photo: Chris Roussakis)

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