If you’re like most people, your high school years were spent in the pursuit of friends, fun and a bit of knowledge.
Melanie Grondin spent a portion of hers in the University of Windsor laboratory of cancer researcher Dr. Lisa Porter, where she focused on manipulating stem cells in an effort to make more people ideal tissue or bone marrow donors.
Obviously, she’s not your typical student—high school or otherwise. A first-class academic, dedicated researcher, campus volunteer emergency services team captain, and youth hockey coach, Grondin makes excellence look easy.
The exceptional young woman won the position in Porter’s lab through the Sonofi Biogenius Canada competition, an advanced science fair that challenges high school students to carry out groundbreaking research projects in the field of biotechnology.
For Grondin, the research opportunity was about more than science. It was personal. “My father had cancer, and a lot of people in my family have had cancer, so there is a real, personal connection there,” she says. “It is a disease where your own self is killing you. It is difficult to figure out. There are lot of intricacies in cancer.”
The SBC competition provides students with expert, scientific mentors and access to real-world laboratories, which led Grondin to Porter, biology professor at UWindsor and scientific director of the Windsor Cancer Research Group.
“Dr. Porter is great and is a true mentor,” she says. “She is very supportive and treats her student researchers as equals.”
After high school, she was accepted into the university’s Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program. Grondin’s top grades also earned her a coveted spot as an Outstanding Scholar, a program that provides undergraduates with the opportunity to work closely with faculty on research. This allowed her to continue her research with Porter.
Porter says Grondin brings a great deal of enthusiasm and hard work to her projects. “It has been a pleasure to continue working with her during her university years. Melanie is a bright and creative student who is evolving into a skilled researcher. She is truly a valued member ofourteam.”
Grondin transitioned her work from cancer to tuberous sclerosis, another growth disease similar to cancer. Mutations of the tuberous sclerosis can cause tumours of the skin, retina, heart, kidney and central nervous system.
Now in third year, she is studying the protein’s structure in an effort to understand the disease better, in the hopes of one day helping to find a cure. Even at this early stage of her academic career, her research is being integrated into peer-reviewed articles with Porter.
Though she loves the research side of science, Grondin plans to go to medical school and become a doctor, which is why she chose the Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program, with its joint emphasis on biology and psychology.
“I think biology is how animals and people work physically, and psychology is about how they work mentally. So together, these programs give you a good idea of how life works.”
Outside of the lab and classroom, Grondin undertook a year of rigorous training so she could volunteer as an emergency responder on campus. Not surprisingly, she worked her way up to crew chief.
“It is so much fun, and you’re helping people in need,” she says. “There have been a few scary moments of people going to hospital, but it doesn’t make me rethink my commitment to medical future. It reaffirms it.”
The all-around student also coaches a youth hockey team. She says that, as a child, playing competitive girls hockey helped her overcome her own extreme shyness.
“Being involved in hockey and other sports leads to better camaraderie and team-building abilities,” she says. “It gives an understanding of how other people work. It was so important in making me who I am as a person, so I felt I wanted to give back to the community.”
Grondin says that a medical career won’t preclude her from seeking out more research opportunities. She relishes the thrill of that moment when an experiment works out too much to leave the laboratory behind.
“Once, I did a particular experiment where I hadn’t worked all the kinks out in advance. I didn’t think it would succeed. When I saw it had— andthatwe’dfoundsomethingnew—itsowasexciting.”