Indigenous undergrad student explores the possible role of ANK2 in syncope and seizure during summer internship

When University of Victoria (UVic) undergraduate student K’sana Wood Lynes-Ford (pictured below) began looking into the IBRO-CBH Summer Research Internship Awards for Canadian Indigenous Undergraduate Students, she didn’t expect to find herself with two unique research opportunities. Nor did she expect to work on a project with personal significance.

imageK’sana, who is from the Gitxsan, Tsimshian, and ‘Namgis Nations, is splitting her time between Dr. Laura Arbour and Dr. Leigh Anne Swayne’s labs in the Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) this summer. Her work is related to “When Rare Becomes Common: The impact of the AnkB p.S646F variant on heart disease in a Northern BC First Nation," a CIHR-funded project co-led by Dr. Arbour and Dr. Swayne. This project is exploring the presence of a variant of the gene Ankyrin 2 (ANK2) in the Gitxsan First Nation community, as well as the variant’s role in several heart conditions. The variant is known to be associated with a heart condition called long QT syndrome in some families, and it may also contribute to congenital heart malformations and cardiomyopathy in those families. ANK2 is also expressed in the brain, which relates to the focus of K’sana’s internship: investigating the connection this variant might have to syncope/seizure experienced by these same families.

“It felt very much like the stars aligned,” she says about having the opportunity to work on a project focused on one of her nations. “A lot of the health issues that we are trying to understand, I’ve seen affect my community.”

In Dr. Arbour’s lab, K’sana is exploring whether individuals with the ANK2 variant have a greater chance of having syncope/seizure compared to people with different variants. For this clinical research experience, she is developing a tool that can comb through data gathered from medical records and personal accounts of participants who have experienced loss-of-consciousness episodes to determine what kind(s) of episodes—i.e., syncope/seizure—they are having. The tool will also be linked to the participants’ genetic information to see if the ANK2 variant plays a role in these episodes. The problem is that even if the association with ANK2 is confirmed, it is not clear whether the loss-of-consciousness episodes are a result of the role of ANK2 in heart cells or in brain cells.

In Dr. Swayne’s lab, K’sana is gaining basic science research experience. She is setting up imaging experiments to observe the activity of cultured neurons in a dish, which will enable her to ultimately investigate the effects of the ANK2 variant on neuronal activity in this in vitro model. These imaging experiments will help to understand whether the presence of the variant in neurons could—at a cellular level—heighten the risk of seizure.

K’sana says that the fact the community she is studying will directly benefit from her research is significant. “It’s really important to have community-driven research, especially when you are working with Indigenous communities,” she says. “I feel lucky to be a part of something where there is a really positive relationship that’s giving back. Not a lot of research necessarily gives back to the community right away.”

“I’m getting very different experiences,” K’sana says of her two research projects. “I feel really lucky that the researchers I’m working with are both women and both have knowledge about working with Indigenous communities,” she adds. “A lot of the time as an undergraduate student, I’m not necessarily working with people who look like me. So being able to work with people who are not only familiar with working with Indigenous people, but work with Indigenous people from my Nation, is pretty much unheard of.”

“K’sana has stellar leadership skills and research potential. In a relatively short amount of time, she is already making an impact.” say Drs. Arbour and Swayne.

K’sana is one of three students, including Erin Clouthier and Lauren Aimoe (Faulkner), working in DMS labs this summer thanks to the IBRO-CBH Summer Research Internship Awards for Canadian Indigenous Undergraduate Students. Funded through a partnership between the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) and the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health (CBH), the award aims to enhance opportunities for Indigenous undergraduate students to participate in neuroscience research. This is the first year the award, which began at UBC, was offered at UVic. “We have had a really strong interest,” says Dr. Swayne. “It just speaks to the need.” The award also expanded to the University of Lethbridge.

“There is a need for capacity building, and for this opportunity to offer it at such an early stage of university actually encourages students to go onto research,” says Dr. Arbour, who notes that the Silent Genomes Project has highlighted the lack of training opportunities for Indigenous scholars in genetics or genomics. “Programs like this are what can make a difference.”

K’sana agrees. “Paid positions like these for Indigenous students make it easier for Indigenous students to be in STEM fields, to apply to programs like medical school, to make contacts in academia,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to find your place when you feel like you’re being supported.”