Meet our students

Samantha Van Nest
Samantha’s work has also shown that Raman spectroscopy can track hypoxia and hypoxic recovery in non-small cell lung cancer, key effects that can indicate the radiation resistance and sensitivity of this disease.

Samantha Van Nest

Samantha Van Nest’s interest in physics and cancer research was fueled by a series of encyclopedias purchased by her dad one Saturday afternoon at a used book sale. A decade or so later, this led her to study Medical physics in an effort to blend these two interests together. Securing funding from the Canadian government (NSERC) during her MSc and PhD, as well as private funding support from IODE Canada allowed her to work freely on the research she wished to pursue. Samantha moved to Victoria to join the UVIC-BCCA medical physics program, working with Dr. Andrew Jirasek (UVIC physics), Dr. Julian Lum (BCCA microbiology/immunology) and Dr. Alex Brolo (UVIC chemistry) in a unique collaboration between cancer biology, physics and chemistry. Early in her time at UVIC she had a conversation with the director of the program and he suggested the key role radiobiology would play in improving radiation therapy for patients in the future. Samantha took this as her personal calling to develop techniques in personalized radiation therapy, and that is what she has been doing ever since.

Radiation therapy is a commonly implemented treatment for many types of cancer. Currently, techniques for prescribing radiation dose levels tend to follow a one-size-fits-all approach. This means that there is very little personalization of radiation doses for the individual, to account for unique resistance or sensitivity that may be associated with a patient’s disease. The goal of Samantha’s research is to investigate the use of Raman Spectroscopy as a way to measure unique changes in tissue that has been exposed to radiation. Ultimately, the aim of the project is to develop this technique to be used for personalizing radiation doses for patients.

Throughout Samantha’s time at UVIC she has made several key advancements towards this goal.  First, she established Raman spectroscopy as a method to detect unique radiation response signatures in human cell lines derived from breast, prostate and lung cancers. She then developed tumour models and showed that Raman spectroscopy can identify radiation responses in lung and breast tumours. The tumour is a much more complicated system compared to single cells grown in dishes, however, despite these additional complexities this technique was found to stand up to the task.

During this work Samantha also revealed some unique characteristics of the radiation response. A key discovery was that the radiation response does not occur uniformly throughout the tumour, but is localized in specific regions of the tumour. This is very important for the future understanding of how tumours respond to radiation and how we can improve the use of radiation to treat tumours.

Samantha’s work has also shown that Raman spectroscopy can track hypoxia and hypoxic recovery in non-small cell lung cancer, key effects that can indicate the radiation resistance and sensitivity of this disease. Together, this information establishes Raman spectroscopy as a valuable method for probing the suitability of radiation therapy for a tumour, and can help inform oncologists about the specific resistance or sensitivity of a patient’s disease, leading to improved personalization of their treatment.

This work has lead to several publications that can be found in Scientific Reports, Radiation Research and Applied Spectroscopy. The broad scope of journals this work has reached attests to its highly interdisciplinary nature, marrying concepts in physics, biology, medicine and chemistry.  It has also received significant attention from the research community winning the young investigators 2nd place competition in 2013 and the 1st place oral presentation award in 2016 at the Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists/ Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology Conferences, as well as a presentation award at the International Conference on Advanced Vibrational Spectroscopy. The research formed around Samantha’s work is not over, and is continuing to grow, now moving into clinical trials.

Key to the success of this work was the amazing environment found at the BCCA and UVIC. The medical physics group in particular encouraged Samantha to think outside the box in an effort to pursue new and unique areas of research. This environment promoted her to develop a series of projects that would take a unique approach to studying radiation responses in cells and tissue. The mentorship and support from the researchers and medical physicists throughout her time at UVIC/BCCA has been invaluable. Beyond this, the facilities she could access through UVIC’s CAMTEC facilities (spectrometers, clean rooms, microfluidic fabrication facilities) and BCCA’s Deeley Research Centre (generous tumour and cell line reserves, tissue culturing, flow cytometry, fluorescent imaging, IHC) and UVIC’s animal care facility, as well as the many expert students and staff that helped her along the way have really shaped this research and her career.

Samantha recalls her time as a graduate student at UVIC, “By far the most valuable gift I have received during my time at UVIC has been the opportunity to mentor young scientists on the process of forming scientific ideas and questions, developing experiments to test these ideas and finally executing and reporting the results of these experiments. It is so rewarding to watch a young scientist succeed at answering a question no one knows the answer to.” This experience has led Samantha to pursue a career as a professor where she hopes to continue training new scientists and working towards making personalized radiation therapy a reality from new and exciting perspectives.


  1. S.J. Van Nest, L. Nicholson, L. DeVorkin, A.G. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Raman Spectroscopic Signatures Reveal Distinct Biochemical and Temporal Changes in Irradiated Human Breast Adenocarcinoma Xenografts, Radiation Research (RR5003R, in press), 2018.
  2. S.J. Harder, M. Isabelle, L. DeVorkin, J. Smazynski, A.G. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Raman spectroscopy identifies radiation response in human non-small cell lung cancer xenografts, Scientific Reports, 6:21006, 2016.
  3. Q. Matthews, M. Isabelle, S.J. Harder, J. Smazynski, W. Beckham, A.G. Brolo, A. Jirasek, J.J. Lum, Radiation-induced glycogen accumulation detected by single cell Raman spectroscopy is associated with radioresistance that can be reversed by metformin, PLoS ONE, 10(8):e0135356, 2015.
  4. S.J. Harder, Q. Matthews, M. Isabelle, A.G. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, A Raman Spectroscopic Study of Cell Response to Clinical Doses of Ionizing Radiation, Applied Spectroscopy, 69(2), 2015.
  5. M. Isabelle, V.I. Poon, Z.V. Petropoulos, S.J. Harder, J.J. Lum, Exploring New Strategies to Monitor Autophagy and Related Cell Death Pathways Using Raman Spectroscopy, Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutic Oncology, 1:103, 2013.
  6. P.T. Teo, R. Crow, S.J. Van Nest, D. Sasaki, S. Pistorius, Tracking lung tumour motion using a dynamically weighted optical flow algorithm and electronic portal imaging device, Measurement Science and Technology, 24, 2013.
  7. J. van Wijngaarden, S.J. Van Nest, C.W. van Dijk, D.W. Tokaryk, Rovibrational Spectrum and analysis of the ν8 band of thiophene using infrared synchrotron radiation, Journal of Molecular Spectroscopy, 259: 56-59, 2010.


  1. S.J. Harder, L. Nicholson, A.G Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Metabolic signatures of radiation     response and hypoxia in NSCLC investigated using Raman Spectroscopy (talk), ICAVS9, Victoria, Canada, June 11-16, 2017.
  2. S.J. Harder, M. Isabelle, L. DeVorkin, J. Smazynski, W. Beckham, A. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Radiation induced glycogen accumulation in non-small cell lung cancer xenografts detected using Raman spectroscopy (talk), Medical Physics, 41(8), pg. 4931, COMP 2016, St. John’s, Canada, July 20-23, 2016.
  3. S.J. Harder, M. Isabelle, L. DeVorkin, J. Smazynski, W. Beckham, A.G. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Radiation response signatures in human non-small cell lung cancer xenografts identified using Raman spectroscopy (talk), SPEC 2016, Montreal, Canada, June 26-30, 2016.
  4. S.J. Harder, J.J. Lum, A.G. Brolo, A. Jirasek, Investigating Raman microfluidic chip design for radiobiological applications (poster), SPEC 2016, Montreal, Canada, June 26-30, 2016.
  5. S.J. Harder, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, A.G. Brolo, Investigating chip design for a Raman microfluidic system with clinical radiobiological applications (talk), IUPESM 2015 World Congress on Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering, Toronto, Canada, June 7-12, 2015.
  6. S.J. Harder, Single-cell Raman spectroscopy detects cellular responses to clinical doses of ionizing radiation (poster), SPEC 2014, Krakow, Poland, August 17-22, 2014.
  7. S.J. Harder, Q. Matthews, M. Isabelle, A.G. Brolo, J.J. Lum, A. Jirasek, Raman Spectroscopy for In Vitro Characterization of Cell Radiosensitivity at Clinically Relevant Doses (talk), Radiotherapy and Oncology S1, 108:56-57, COMP/CARO, Montreal, Canada, September 18-21, 2013.


  • June 2017 Oral Presentation Award, International Conference on Advanced Vibrational Spectroscopy 9, Victoria, Canada
  • 2016-2017 IODE War Memorial Scholarship, IODE Canada
  • 2016 COMP 2016 ASM Oral Presentation Award 1st Place, St. John’s, Canada
  • 2016 Sylvia Fedoruk Prize, best paper published in the field of Medical Physics
  • 2013-2016 NSERC Alexander Graham Bell CGS-D(3), University of Victoria
  • 2014 Lieutenant Governor’s Silver Medal nominee
  • 2014 Three Minute Thesis Competition, University of Victoria, 1st place Faculty of Science heat (Institutional, $300.00), Runner Up and People’s Choice Award university-wide heat
  • 2013 Canadian Association of Radiation Oncologists / Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists (CARO/COMP) J.R. Cunningham Young Investigator Award 2nd place, Montreal, QC
  • 2013 President’s Research Scholarship, University of Victoria
  • 2012 NSERC Alexander Graham Bell CGS-M, University of Victoria
  • 2012 President’s Research Scholarship, University of Victoria
  • 2011 University of Victoria Fellowship, University of Victoria
  • 2010 Rvd. Joseph Hogg Scholarship (Chemistry), University of Manitoba
  • 2010 Centennial Scholarship (Physics), University of Manitoba
  • 2009 Demchuk Award in Physical Chemistry, University of Manitoba
  • 2009 H.L. Verrall Scholarship (Physics), University of Manitoba
  • 2008 A.N. Campbell Scholarship (Chemistry), University of Manitoba
  • 2008 NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award