Student research profile: Decrypting metal resistance in various plants

By Danish Alla, for The Lambda

Gabriel Theriault first began working with biologist and Laurentian University professor, Dr. Kabwe Nkongolo, during his undergraduate degree, when the two studies white birch trees and population genetics.

Then, as he worked to complete his M.Sc., Theriault branched off, instead proposing a new area of research. Theriault proposed trying to determine which genes are involved in metal resistance by essentially determining the mechanism of metal resistance of nickel and copper in species such as Deschampsia and maple trees.

Finally, Theriault began his Ph.D. two years ago and again came to study with Dr. Nkongolo at Laurentian.

In total, before beginning his Ph.D., Theriault said he had worked with the professor for about eight years in total, making the choice of who to study with during his Ph.D. an easy one.

Theriault noted that although working with plants is a difficult task, considering there are much larger amounts of research that have been conducted on humans and animals, Theriault remained interested in working with this field.

It presented a challenge, with the main obstacle of the study being the fact that he wished to further the research in this area.

Additionally, sampling also presented as an obstacle, since Theriault had to actually go out into the field and sample on site, rather than being able to grow cell cultures in a lab. Even though this was a lot of work, Theriault said, “if you manage your time well it’s not that difficult.”

Overall, Theriault’s research has not faced any major issues, although a minor setback was extracting RNA from plant roots: since this was a newly investigated topic, figuring out and modifying protocols to match the needs of this experiment was also difficult.

Additionally, in the same lab, other students such as Sabrina Rainville who is in the second year of her M.Sc., and third year Ph.D. student Kersey Kalubi, are also conducting similar experiments.

Rainville’s work revolved around finding the copper and nickel tolerance gene for Deschampsia cespitose while Kalubi is performing a comparative analysis of gene expression in red maple species and poplar species.

Specifically, Kalubi is looking at gene expression levels in contaminated and uncontaminated sites.

In the future, Theriault plans to work in the field of genetics and mentioned that he would enjoy working in the private sector. Rainville noted she wishes to become a physician for the Canadian army while Kalubi plans on finding a career that can incorporate the training he is receiving now at Laurentian University.