Class of 2017: Neuroscience grad hopes his fascination with the brain leads to better treatments

‘It would be a disservice not to try and help whoever you can, in whatever way you can.

Will Wilson is a neuroscience grad student working on epilepsy research. He also does a ton of community work and has won multiple scholarships including an exchange opportunity at Oxford. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Erin Guiltenane, Faculty of Science University of Calgary November 8, 2017

Will Wilson describes his university career as a mosaic. He has switched programs, participated in a research exchange, travelled to over a dozen countries, was caught in a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and has been active in community work, all while doing honours-level research and preparing to apply to graduate school.

“It hasn’t been a linear journey,” says the now-graduate student who convocates with a BSc (Honours) in Neuroscience on Nov. 10. “But the way I see all these pieces being connected — the thread that goes through them all — is the brain.”

Plans to advance neuroscience research extend beyond convocation

After starting his undergraduate degree in the Department of Biological Sciences, Wilson eventually switched to neuroscience. “I wanted to learn about a particular system in greater detail. I think I would have also really enjoyed doing an engineering degree, so for me neuroscience was the perfect blend of biology, chemistry, physics, and a certain amount of engineering and ingenuity. There are challenges to studying the brain that you don’t really see in other parts of the body.”

In 2016, Wilson secured a spot in the competitive HBI-Oxford Rebecca Hotchkiss International Scholar Research Exchange, and spent four months at England’s University of Oxford studying developmental neurobiology. “It enriched my understanding of the brain and the nervous system, in general,” he says. “It was certainly interesting to see how research is conducted in other places. One of the major mandates of sending students to Oxford is to help them understand what it’s like to do research somewhere else, since research is an international enterprise where information has to come from all over the world and be sent all over the world — collaboration is key.”

Wilson took that experience to his work in Cam Teskey’s lab for his honours year, and now with Dr. Paolo Federico, a clinician scientist in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, studying epilepsy. Wilson’s honours research focused on the emotional impacts of epilepsy, specifically how seizures could change blood flow and oxygen content in areas of the brain that regulate emotions and fear.

“My work is looking at the amygdala, which is thought to be the brain’s emotional centre,” he explains. “Some of the most common psychiatric co-morbidities with epilepsy are disorders like depression and anxiety. Epilepsy is immensely complex; for me, studying it has been a window to look at the brain.”

Much of what is known about the brain comes from studying it when something has gone wrong — through illness or injury — and Wilson’s interests lie in learning how to apply neuroscience research to human patients, or learning how to “translate benchside science to bedside science” to see how research can be used to bridge the gaps in patient care. Having Federico as his supervisor, Wilson says, has given him an invaluable first-hand opportunity to see a clinician scientist’s day-to-day work.

He has applied to the Leaders in Medicine joint PhD/MD program at the Cumming School of Medicine, a perfect fit for how he hopes to help patients in the future. “The program is trying to create a generation of doctors who can bring research into clinical settings,” he explains. “When they then see a patient, they’re aware and up to date on the latest research, and the cutting-edge research that’s being done.

“I think it’s important to educate a generation of doctors who want to innovate, and Leaders in Medicine aims to continue that legacy.”

‘A clear, strong, connection to humanity’

While Wilson has spent a lot of time concentrating on studying the brain, he credits his life experiences with preparing him for the challenges that lie ahead with a career in research and medicine.

Between transferring from Biological Sciences to Neuroscience in 2015, Wilson travelled alone to 11 countries, in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and southern Europe. While it sounds like an undergraduate’s dream backpacking trip, his journey was marked by tragedy.

“William is a true global citizen,” says Neuroscience program director Michael Antle. “He didn’t even know about being accepted into the BSc Neuro Program. He was backpacking through Asia at the time, and was in Nepal when the country was struck by a massive earthquake. While this prevented him from receiving the good news about his acceptance, it afforded him an opportunity to witness first-hand the struggle, strength, and recovery of the Nepalese following the earthquake.”

Wilson recalls landing in Kathmandu only an hour before the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the mountain nation. He had been riding in a car with a driver sent from the hostel where he had planned to stay. The first shock of the earthquake hit and a building fell on the car that he was in.

“The driver got out and sprinted as fast as he could,” Wilson recalls. “I’d never been in an earthquake. I had to crawl out the opposite side of the car, but as soon as I got on the ground I couldn’t stand up. I saw people screaming and yelling. I saw buildings fall like dominoes onto people, people tried to run away, people ran out of buildings, ran into buildings — it was total chaos.

“I was there for 72 hours. I slept in as open areas as I could. Total strangers would sleep in clusters of people in fields because aftershocks every 30 seconds were bringing down more buildings. There was limited food and water, and nobody could really sleep. It rained one of the nights. It was just a mess.”

The experience molded Wilson’s motives to become a research doctor. “I’d never seen anybody die and within an hour in Nepal, I saw many people lose their lives. I left with this feeling that it would be a disservice for me to be educated, work hard to have a strong skill set and these personal experiences, and then not try to help whoever I could in whatever way I could. I felt like I had to be part of that process.”

Helping has been a part of life since early teens

Wilson has made helping part of his life since he was 13 years old, when he began working with different organizations supporting people with disabilities including pan-disability hub, Between Friends. For the past two-and-a-half years, he has worked with Society for Treatment of Autism, a residential treatment facility for children and youth who have severe cases of autism.

“I’ve immersed myself in as many aspects of the brain as I can — epilepsy, autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and more. I’ve worked with all of those populations and have seen how the brain is manifesting in all these different ways. That has always been my passion,” he says.

Wilson is also currently working on a literature review in association with the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre and Mathison Centre for Mental Health on the effects of images of minors on the Internet and the way that impacts abuse.

While he has pondered the connection between all of his life experiences, studies, and advocacy work, Wilson says that the thread that ties them all together is the brain. “For a while, I didn’t know what the purpose of getting all of that experience was and how to make sense of it all,” he says. “Now, to me, in blaring neon lights, it has been the brain.”

Knowing what he does now, would Wilson have still chosen to study neuroscience over engineering? “Yes,” he says. “I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the clear, strong connections to humanity that I have. It can be easy to lose sight of why all this research matters. In studying something like neuroscience, it’s reinforced on a daily basis that this research is for us, it’s for everyone, it’s for the world.

“What is not always obvious from the outside are the teams of hard-working, committed individuals behind successful projects and people. I am incredibly grateful for the mentorship and opportunities that have been available to me throughout my degree. I am who I am, and where I am, because of the people I’ve met and worked with along the way. I have been elevated by the dedicated people around me.”

Source University of Calgary


Also see
Calgary group ‘Between Friends’ gives people with disabilities sense of belonging Global News

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