Former grad makes her mark

April 1, 2009 - 9:14am

It’s hard to believe Dr. Tanya Griffiths – recipient of Vancouver Island University’s 2009 Alumni Horizon Award – had very little interest in science during high school.

She graduated from VIU with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, earned a PhD, carved out a career as a successful scientific researcher, and is now pursing her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

The Alumni Horizon Award is given to an alumnus for outstanding achievement within 10 years of obtaining a credential from VIU.

“Tanya is a perfect example of what someone can achieve with an undergraduate degree from VIU ,” said President Dr. Ralph Nilson. “All of us are delighted she has achieved such tremendous success and that she remains such a positive ambassador for our institution.”

Griffiths, who grew up in the Cowichan Valley, initially wanted to become a nurse after high school, but didn’t have the necessary science background to enter the Nursing program. She enrolled in VIU’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program to upgrade her education, but fate changed her direction.

“I had a wonderful ABE teacher for Biology 11 and 12,” explained Griffiths. “One day she said, ‘Tanya you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t get a Biology degree.’ That planted a seed.”

In 2000, Griffiths graduated from VIU’s Bachelor of Science (Biology) program with distinction and received the Department’s Outstanding Student Award.

With high marks, research experience and excellent references from her professors, she was accepted straight into the PhD program at the University of British Columbia (UBC), with full funding. She won several scholarships, including the prestigious Post-Graduate Scholarship from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

“It’s rare for an undergraduate student to go directly into a doctoral program, and rarer still to be fully funded with an entrance scholarship,” said Dr. Tim Goater, one of Griffith’s former Biology professors at VIU. “These fellowships are highly competitive, with about 60 students a year applying for only three or four spots. Tanya competed against national and international students and rose to the top.”

Griffiths pursued her doctoral and post doctoral studies in UBC’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with Dr. Ross MacGillivray. She published three major research papers in renowned journals, presented her research at several international and national conferences, and was a contributing author on several more peer-reviewed publications.  She successfully defended her dissertation and earned a PhD in January 2006.

Griffiths also completed a post-doctoral research position at the University of Calgary with the Gastrointestinal Research Group studying pathogenic intestinal bacteria. Earlier this year, she enrolled in medical school at the University of BC.

“In four years, she will be one of those very few people who have both PhD and MD beside their name,” said Goater.

While at VIU, Griffiths carried out undergraduate research on a cancer-causing gene under the supervision of professor Dr. Allan Gibson, and worked in a lab as a student assistant with Rob Wager, molecular biology lab demonstrator. 

“I was required to conduct a year-long directed research project (Biology 491) in my fourth year,” she explained. “I gained a strong theoretical background in my field, and valuable hands-on research experience. I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity at a larger institution.

“I was given the freedom to design my own experiments and come up with all the proper negative and positive experimental controls during my undergrad research project. These skills are vital when in a laboratory-based graduate program.”

Goater nominated Griffiths for the Alumni Horizon Award because “she’s a catalyst who inspires hard work and devotion in her peers, is a mentor for undergraduate students, keenly promotes women in science, has a love of teaching and is constantly giving back to her alma mater.

“She has returned to VIU twice to present lectures on her field of study as part of the Science and Technology lecture series,” he said. “She’s a terrific public speaker and a great role model for the next generation of scientific young minds.”

Griffiths will accept the Alumni Horizon Award at the June convocation ceremony.

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