Heather Yong: Plotting a Path from Bench to Bedside

Heather Yong, pictured in front of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health.

Heather Yong is a Directed Studies student in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. She has been volunteering with the UBC MS/NMO Clinic and Research Group at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health since 2013.

In her final year of her undergraduate studies, Yong is already volunteering in the multiple sclerosis (MS) clinic, conducting epidemiological research with Dr. Helen Tremlett, and publishing her findings in scientific journals. She is primarily interested in MS and plans to apply to the MD/PhD program in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, where she hopes her experience in engaging patients and conducting population health research will inform the way she provides care.

Her paper, published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, looked at pharmacological treatments associated with MS risk and reviewed the scientific literature to determine risk of MS associated with exposure to certain drugs. She found seven drug classes, and despite associations with the disease in some cases, she found no conclusive evidence that a drug increased the risk of MS. Interestingly, there was suggestion that some drugs might actually lower the risk of developing MS. Evaluating the data is no small feat – the work took three years, and while her findings represent an important piece in understanding factors that can contribute to neurological disease, her effort represents a drive you can’t simply teach.

“My dad, a neuroimmunologist in Calgary, suggested I try volunteering as a way to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Yong. “I’ve been lucky to get to work with the UBC MS/NMO Group, where research and clinical care are so well integrated; I’ve been able to do a little bit of everything, from consenting patients for research to conducting my own studies in partnership with some of the faculty and postdocs.”

Yong has been exposed to a wide range of research areas, from epidemiology with Dr. Tremlett, to clinical trials with Dr. Anthony Traboulsee, to pathology and immunology with Dr. Jacqueline Quandt.

“Recently I’ve been working with Dr. Shannon Kolind and Dr. Roger Tam, who have been teaching me conventional MRI and advanced myelin water imaging techniques,” says Yong.

Heather Yong’s experience is unique in part because she is entirely self-motivated.

“For the average undergraduate student, the path to this kind of immersive research experience is not straightforward; these types of opportunities are generally only made available to people in co-op programs,” explains Yong. “If you want to get involved in research at the undergraduate level, you often have to pursue it for yourself. But the great thing is that once you are in, there’s a lot of support from both faculty and administrative staff to become whatever it is you’re working toward.”

For Yong, the experience with the MS clinic has been invaluable.

“I knew that I wanted to be in research, but I thought I was headed toward basic science,” she says. “Interacting with patients has really shown me the bigger picture; talking to people with MS every day has given me a depth of understanding I might not have been able to attain until much later in my academic career, and it has given me a clearer sense of where I want to go on the road ahead.”

“Heather really impressed my team," says Dr. Tremlett. "It is not often you get the privilege of working with an undergraduate who not only completes a study but to a sufficient level and quality to get published in a high-impact peer-review journals, such as Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety. What an outstanding achievement.”