Elisabeth Foerster, Immunology

Student Name: Elisabeth Foerster
Department: Department of Immunology

Research Title: PhD Candidate
Supervisor: Dr. Dana Philpott

Description of Your Research:
Through my research I am trying to gain insight into how a genetic risk factor contributes to the biological basis for the development of Crohn’s Disease. My focus is on the cells of the small intestine which form the barrier between the inside of the intestine and the body. The risk factor I study plays a role in a cell’s response to stress and infection, as well as processes. Specifically, I look at how this risk factor may be predisposing the intestinal barrier to an increased risk of its breakdown.

Why did you Choose this Department:
I joined this department in my third year of undergraduate studies after a summer in a research lab where I realized I wanted to continue doing wet lab research. I appreciate the multi-disciplinary approach of immunology; it pulls from other life science disciplines to answer complex questions. The diverse research interests, weekly seminars, faculty, size, and location of the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto were also deciding factors.

How was your Experience Looking for a Research Opportunity:
I was fortunate to be able to work in a lab abroad over the summer after my second year of undergraduate studies. Having some experience helped open doors. Nevertheless, I did come up against a few brick walls until I joined the Department of Immunology summer program which ultimately led to me joining my current lab, completing a fourth year project, and starting graduate school.

When did you Start your Research Experience:

I started in my undergraduate studies as a project student. In September 2014, I entered the graduate program in Immunology.

Why did you Choose this Supervisor:
I first learned about my supervisor’s research interests in a course that she co-teaches. My additive interests in immunology and microbiology fell in line with the innate immunity, microbial sensing, microbiota, and intestinal disease research topics. Additionally, I learned to appreciate the diverse, and very explorative, at times more risky research done in the lab. Those reasons along with the highly collaborative environment convinced me to stay.

What’s your Experience with Research:
My first experience in a lab was in high school where I spent two weeks in a lab learning about a researcher’s day to day life. Although, it did take me a couple more years to fully convince myself to pursue a graduate degree. There have been ups and downs, failures and successes. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in multiple projects on the side leading to (soon) two co-authorships. But I’m mostly excited to see where my primary project is going. Research has reinforced my love of the scientific method as a tool for discovery, and how to truly make evidence-based decisions.

How’s the Social Experience with Research:
I have met many good friends and interesting, like-minded people in graduate school. Long nights and weekends can be straining but there is consistently a weekend group which in itself is supportive. I am also involved in different aspects of student life, including several public outreach and communication initiatives.

Future Career Plans:
This is still up for discussion, but right now I am leaning towards doing a postdoctoral fellowship and afterwards either starting my own lab or joining a lab as a staff scientist. I do wish to stay in academia but I won’t really know until a few years from now. Nevertheless, I try to keep other options open by honing my communications and baking skills.

One Advice/Tip:
Grad school is a time where you can test the waters and explore. It’s easy to stick with what you know but I think this is the time where you can take risks and delve into topics you are curious about.