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Small Sisters in Science

Is your sister your best friend? Has she encouraged you to pursue your dreams? Can she help you with your new research project on examining bacterial motility? “All of these and more,” says Mckenzie Small about her older sister Cherrie Small.

The Small sisters have nothing but positive things to say about one another. “My
sister Cherrie is, and always has been, someone I’ve looked up to my entire life. From watching her graduate from her PhD, driving to her house almost every weekend, taking care of my niece and nephew, and laughing with her – she’s my best friend,” Mckenzie replies, full of pride in her big sisters accomplishments. “Professionally, she’s taught me what hard work and dedication looks like, and what it gives. She’s taught me that anything worthwhile isn’t easy but it’s equally rewarding.”

When asked about Mckenzie, Cherrie beams, “My sister and I have a great relationship that I respect immensely. It’s funny because we are very similar in a variety of ways you wouldn’t believe, even though we grew up in different environments and great difference in age!” She even says that she tries to emulate McKenzie’s amazing time management abilities in her own world, balancing time between her kids and her ever-evolving career. “She has shown me I can do it all and she is willing to help in any way possible.”

Like most sisters Mckenzie and Cherrie share the same warm smile and bubbly demeanor, but these sisters also share something else – a passion for science.

Dr. Cherrie Small pursued her Postdoctoral Fellowship in the lab of Dr. Brian Coombes, a professor of biochemistry at McMaster University. She describes her time in the Coombes lab positively, leaving her with many fond memories. “Having Brian as a mentor and a supervisor during my Postdoctoral training was just what I needed at that point in my life. He was a positive role model who showed me success and good work ethic can be acquired and rewarded with hard work, determination, and a positive attitude.” When asked about one of the top takeaways from her time here in the McMaster Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR), Cherrie replies thoughtfully, “I now understand that a setback in life does not have to be a negative experience, but can be used to pave a new or better path going forward.”

Given the unique circumstance of working in a research laboratory, Cherrie used this opportunity to introduce her younger sister Mckenzie, who was in grade school at the time, to science. “That was when my interest in science really began,” said Mckenzie. “When I would watch my sister do her lab work, it was everything I wanted to be. I was always so fascinated by the lab environment and I wanted to help with everything, even when it meant refilling pipette tip boxes by hand! I was always so excited.” When asked about how her interest in science grew over the years, Mckenzie gives credit to her sister and to her incredibly passionate high school science teachers.

Cherrie’s interest science has clearly rubbed off on Mckenzie, who was given an opportunity this year to compete in the SANOFI Biogenius Canada competition. This national competition matches high school students with local mentors, and gives the students hands-on research experience in a professional lab setting. When asked about how she got involved with the SANOFI competition, Mckenzie replies, “My high school biology teacher encouraged me to pursue it. He competed himself when he was in high school, and every year he takes the time out of his days to help students get involved in this competition. He makes a world of difference in my high school environment and I wouldn’t have even known this was a possibility without him!”

With this opportunity in mind, Mckenzie decided to follow her sister’s lead and pursue research in the Coombes lab at McMaster, which focused on examining variations in bacterial motility in different strains of Escherichia coli. “I learned a wealth of knowledge from this experience and not just knowledge in microbiology. I got a little taste of what a career in research is like, “says Mckenzie. The best part about the laboratory experience was, “Definitely my mentors in the lab, Wael Elhenawy, Elizabeth Chau, HT Law, and Aline Comyn, who were always so open to taking the time to sit with me, and help me understand concepts to the fullest extent. Learning from them everyday was by far the best part about this experience.”

The SANOFI Biogenius competition included 15 competitors from the entire GTA region, and awards the top 5 students with prizes. The process begins with the submission of a research proposal with the help of a mentor, and after acceptance, the real lab work begins. “The Coombes lab welcomed me with open arms,” Mckenzie said cheerfully, and when asked about her research she commented proudly, “What we found was that there were in fact variations in motility zones which were very promising results!” After the conclusion of her research, Mckenzie was required to prepare a poster and present her findings in front of a panel of highly educated judges. “Everyone in the lab was extremely helpful in preparing me for the presentation, and although it was extremely nerve-racking, if I had to do it all over again, I would because the experience itself was like no other.” Although she didn’t place in the top 5, Mckenzie was not disheartened. “The competitors who did were very well deserving,” she said, commenting that the entire experience was very rewarding. “The Coombes lab provided an encouraging and positive environment to harness and grow my love for science, and for that, I couldn’t be more thankful,” said Mckenzie, a sentiment echoed by Cherrie of her time in the lab as well.

Dr. Cherrie Small is currently working as a Scientist and a Scientific Liaison at Inflamax Research Limited, a clinical research organization. “I provide scientific oversight and ensure scientific integrity of Phase I through Phase IV clinical trials in the area of Respiratory, Dermatology, and Biomarker research.” In addition to this role, Cherrie also provides scientific expertise to new business pursuits, and works closely alongside leaders in both the academic and industry fields to help optimize clinical trial strategies and study design. “It sounds like a lot but I love it!” she says.

Like her sister, Mckenzie also leads a busy life; she’s both a high school student and an aspiring music professional. These seemingly very different passions – science and music – can be hard to balance, but Mckenzie wouldn’t have it any other way. “I take my grades and education very seriously, as I believe that it’s a vital part of one’s life,” she says, “There have been times where I had to take a week off from the lab to record my music video, and then have to stay up late to study for a chemistry test the next day – which is when it can get a little overwhelming,” she admits. “I think after high school I want to take the time to fully dedicate myself 100% to one thing at a time and see where life takes me from there.” Mckenzie will likely defer her undergraduate start to focus on her music, and then pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Science.

These science-loving sisters have a bright future ahead of them, and we wish them all the best!