Roxane Paulin, PhD

Post-doctoral Fellow, Vascular Biology Research Group Department of Medicine, University of Alberta
Researcher of the month: 
Feb 2014

On the road to success

In 2013, Roxane Paulin faced five international judges in the field of cardiology to defend her research into the causes of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). She walked away from the encounter with a prestigious prize, the American Heart Association’s Cournand and Comroe Young Investigator Award, edging out competitors from Harvard, Stanford, the University of Tokyo and a colleague from the University of Alberta (U of A). She won US$2000 and a plaque, honouring her achievement.

“This is the world’s biggest conference for cardiopulmonary disease,” says Paulin. “It was really exciting to be recognized and an important step for my career.”

Paulin was well prepared for the challenge. Her presentation was based on two years of research into the activity of Sirtuin 3 (Sirt3), an enzyme that regulates mitochondrial function in cells within the pulmonary circulatory system. Her research focused on a variation or polymorphism in the gene that produces this enzyme.

With her fellow researchers at the University of Alberta’s Department of Medicine, she discovered that abnormalities in Sirt3 kick-start a chain of events that slows mitochondrial function. The mitochrondria is the cell’s powerhouse.

Pulmonary cells with Sirt3 abnormalities act like cancer cells, she explains. “They are proliferative and they are not dying. The number of cells in pulmonary arteries increases and actually obstructs the inside of these vessels.

“They become thicker, so the right heart ventricle must work harder to push blood through these vessels.”

Cell proliferation is a hallmark of PAH, a deadly disease usually diagnosed in its late stages. Paulin hopes that this work will lead to the development of a biomarker that may improve the diagnosis.

The path to pulmonary research

A post-doctoral fellow, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research and Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, Paulin works in the laboratory of Dr. Evangelos Michelakis, Director of the U of A’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program
and Canada Research Chair in Molecular & Mitochondrial Medicine.

Before coming to Alberta, she earned her doctorate at the Université Laval under the supervision of Dr. Sébastien Bonnet, Director of the Canada Research Chair in Vascular Biology.

Training with these internationally recognized leaders in pulmonary research has placed her squarely on the path to a successful career. But her future wasn’t always this clear.

As a child on a farm in southern France, near Lisle sur Tarn, north of Toulouse, Paulin wanted to become a veterinarian. She entered university to study for this profession but was soon attracted to the biology rather than care of animals. Her interest led to a change in direction.

“I really didn’t want to be a vet anymore. I wanted to study fundamental biology. I’ve always loved science, especially finding out how things work and the biological mechanisms behind that,” she says. “As a child, it’s difficult to know what research is. In university, my knowledge of it evolved every year, so I decided to make a change.”

After graduating with a Master’s degree in molecular biology, Paulin searched for a doctoral program. She knew nothing about pulmonary hypertension and vascular biology, but the translational approach to research at Bonnet’s laboratory in French-speaking Quebec attracted her. She decided to come to Canada.

Part of her training at Laval was in learning how to think like a scientist. As a PhD student, ideas for projects are not your own, she admits, but they evolve with you. Like other students, she formed a close collaboration with Bonnet. She researched project ideas, ran them by him, and evolved her thinking based on his feedback.

“You would say what you think, and he’d try to break your thinking and destabilize you, so you would try to be more constructive, explain better, bring more arguments. That’s the kind of discussion we'd have every day. Every day, it was like a fight.

“In the end, that’s the way to have a well-constructed project,” she says. “You explore every way of doing the project, because you’re asking questions about it every day.”

After graduating, Paulin made the move to Alberta at Bonnet’s urging. She had published a well-read article on the role of STAT3 in pulmonary hypertension, a forerunner to her work on Sirt3. Her background in pulmonary hypertension research and knowledge of new technology made her a welcome addition to Michelakis’ team.

Michelakis has a strong belief in translational research that was magnetic to Paulin. Because he’s a cardiologist who works with patients, he has a different view of pulmonary hypertension than basic researchers – one that Paulin knew would help her to further her knowledge of PAH and progress in her career.

The translational nature of her work on Sirt3 is important to Paulin. “We’re trying to do research that can be applied to the clinic,” she says. “It is critical to improve the translation from bench to bedside and develop more efficient therapies.”

Her enthusiasm for research is obvious. “When you’re fascinated by your work, you think about it all the time,” she says. “It’s really exciting. You wake up in the morning and have new ideas about what to do next. You go to work every day with a smile.”