Posted on August 03, 2016

PROFILE: Meet MD/PhD candidate Hannah Dies

Queen’s engineering grad student chooses a path to the top of her field

Hannah Dies

LONG ROAD AHEAD: If all goes as planned, Queen’s graduate student Hannah Dies will finish grad school in 2021 with both a PhD in chemical engineering and an MD.

Although 11 years may seem an impossibly long time to be in university, just imagine the qualifications and skills that can be amassed if that time is put to good use. Hannah Dies is among the few who chose just that path. After earning her bachelor’s degree in Integrated Science and Physics from McMaster University, she’s now at Queen’s working toward both a PhD in chemical engineering and an MD from the School of Medicine. If all goes as planned, it will take her a total of seven years to complete her graduate studies. If successful, she will graduate in 2021 as both a medical doctor and researcher.

She’ll be uniquely qualified to become a world-leader in whatever branch of biomedical research she chooses to pursue while simultaneously credentialed as a skilled clinician.   

“I was pretty convinced as an undergrad that I wanted to go to med school and I still am,” says Dies. “But I was pretty good at the physical sciences and it’s always good to do the things you’re good at. I ended up doing my undergrad with a major in physics and also had quite a bit of research going on. When I found out you could do an MD/PhD program and do something a little bit more physical sciences-oriented I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Dies arrived at Queen’s in 2014 and she’ll be starting her medical training in September. These days she’s working on research on lab-on-a-chip-based diagnostics. It’s emerging technology researchers hope will make complex medical diagnostic processes cheaper, easier and more reliable to use. Currently, for example, testing for most blood-borne pathogens requires teams of highly skilled technicians in expensive and well-equipped laboratories. In many places, for many groups, testing facilities are simply too far away and too expensive to use. When tests can be conducted at distance, they can simply take too long for results to be useful. Imagine inexpensive, portable devices that can be used quickly with little training at the point of care. Such devices could revolutionize medical diagnostics and save millions of lives. That’s lab-on-a-chip research and work to that end is how Dies spends her time.

“I do all my microfabrication at the Kingston Nano-Fabrication Laboratory at Innovation Park,” she says. “We make chips that are used to detect proteins, bacteria, small contaminants, pesticides, illicit drugs, that kind of thing. It’s really exciting.”

Dies is co-supervised in the work by Queen’s engineering professors Carlos Escobedo and Aris Docoslis.

“I’ve learned a lot from both of them,” she says.

Hannah Dies

LAB-ON-A-CHIP: Dies does much of her work at the Kingston Nano Fabrication Lab at Innovation Park. She’s working on research that could revolutionize medical care around the world.

Among the challenges inherent in spending 11 years in university are financial pressures. Dies has, on the strength of her academic performance, earned financial support for tuition and living expenses through scholarships and bursaries. But it is so far a life of feast or famine – mostly famine – and every year comes the question of how to pay for the next. Medical school is an expensive proposition all on its own. Much of that pressure, at least for now, was relieved when Dies earned a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship last year. It’s one of the highest honours available to graduate students in Canada and it comes with $50,000 per year over three years.

“I was so excited when I got the Vanier,” says Dies. “If I hadn’t received the award, I probably would have come out of this degree with debt. It’s also some peace-of-mind. If you’re not stressing about one thing, like money, you can maybe be a little bit more focussed or involved in your work. I’ll be in school for quite a long time, so it’s extremely enabling in that respect.”

And it’s notable that Dies is not the only Vanier graduate scholar in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Queen’s. Her colleague, Peter Gilbert, earned the honour this year.

“Hannah’s going to be an awesome doctor one day,” says Gilbert.

Queen’s University is situated on traditional Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory.