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Introducing Zhila

Please tell HMB about yourself:

I am currently a senior PhD student and a CIHR doctoral scholar in the Department of Nutritional Sciences under the supervision of Dr. Anthony Hanley. My research focuses on the epidemiology of obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D), using a longitudinal cohort of at-risk subjects from southern Ontario. More specifically, I am investigating the association of a novel biomarker of adipose tissue macrophage activation in aims to better understand the possible pathway relating obesity to T2D onset. In addition to this work, I am involved in public health nutrition and nutrition policy research where I have published work on the nutritional quality of the Canadian food supply and effectiveness of a novel eHealth tool developed at the University of Toronto aimed to provide and educate users on personal dietary sodium intake.In 2014, I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto with a double major in HMB: Health and Disease and Nutritional Sciences. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I worked in a number of research labs in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Nutritional Sciences, and Psychology where I worked on several qualitative and quantitative research projects. These led to peer-reviewed publications in top-tier journals and opportunities to attend scientific conferences. My experiences from the various labs really helped me understand the process of conducting research and identify the area that interested me the most. It also helped me realize my passion in pursuing a career in research.I started graduate school in 2015 as a Master’s student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences where I began on a small portion of my current doctoral research. I knew that I wanted to continue my education in research and decided to reclassify into the PhD program in 2016. Since then, I have been working on a number of objectives as part of my doctoral thesis in aims to better understand the obesity-diabetes relationship. I have also established collaborations with other labs in the department in related areas – such as assessing the current evidence on diet and the risk for metabolic syndrome.In addition to my research, I am involved in a number of organizations including the Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student Association, NutriNews (Department of Nutritional Sciences Newsletter), and Department of Nutritional Sciences Alumni Association. Balancing my time in research and extracurricular activities has played an important role in my success in graduate school.

If you could go back and give your undergraduate self one piece of advice, what would it be?
“Calm down! Stay focused and be patient.”
Being in a program with hundreds of students can be extremely overwhelming. In addition to the heavy course-load, trying to secure research positions and stay involved in school activities can seem nearly impossible. I remember finding myself very stressed at times with how to balance my school work and all the additional activities I wanted to be involved in. I remember the competitiveness in applying for research positions and always comparing myself to the next person. I have come to realize that there is often more than one path to the end goal. Without knowing it, I practiced this throughout my undergraduate years, as well. It was extremely challenging to try to email professors regarding research assistant positions and eventually I realized that talking to my TAs in courses that I found interesting and asking whether there were any volunteer opportunities in their respective labs helped get my foot-in-the-door. This all eventually snowballed to more research opportunities, bigger projects, and helped me secure a graduate student research position in an area that I am passionate in.

What is one of your non-science-related passions?
I have many passions outside of research. I love to travel and have made it a goal to travel to one new place each year. Perhaps my most memorable trip was my visit to Japan and South Korea. Travelling teaches you so many lessons and helps you gain perspective on your own life. More recently, I have also been dabbling in pottery and have started to enroll in at least one clay course at the Gardiner Museum each term. I have found this very therapeutic and a great way to step away from the chaos at school.