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Spotlight on alumni

In the third of four spotlights on the 2011 Alumni Tribute Award winners in this edition and the subsequent edition of the Gazette, we feature Krista Power. Ms. Power is the 2011 recipient of the Horizon Award, in recognition for extraordinary achievements of Memorial alumni under the age of 35. A research scientist with Agriculture and Agrifood Canada and adjunct professor at the University of Guelph and University of Toronto, Krista Power talks with our Gazette contributor David Penney about what motivates her and why she feels she's just getting started.

DP: Tell me about yourself.
KP: Well, I'm from Mount Carmel in St. Mary's Bay. One of six kids. I lived there until I was about 10 years old and then we moved to Mount Pearl. I graduated from high school in '94 and then it was on to Memorial. I always remained close to St. Mary's Bay though; in fact, we have a cottage in St. Joseph's.

DP: What about your experience at Memorial? How did you get interested in science?
KP: Well, I think Memorial definitely confirmed that interest, but I had a lot of pre-university exposure to science that really had a strong influence as well. I was selected for the women in science and engineering program and was fortunate enough to work in a lab at the Health Sciences Centre for a summer. So that was really the beginning for me. When I started biochemistry at Memorial I loved doing research already. From there I pursued nutrition and then did my master's and PhD at the University of Toronto.

DP: In terms of your research, there is definitely a pattern: Estrogen Receptor Signaling in Effects Induced by Dietary Estrogens, Interactive Effects of Flaxseed and Soy – Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators . . . Can you talk about that?
KP: Yes, well my research had a strong focus on women's health, in particular breast cancer and osteoporosis. I have been studying foods that are rich in estrogen-like compounds, called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens may affect women's health by activating estrogen receptors and mimicking our own natural estrogens. So, I have been studying how these compounds and foods rich in these compounds, such as soy and flaxseed, affect breast cancer growth and bone health in mouse models.

DP: Are you still pursuing that particular area of research?
KP: Right now I'm still studying flaxseed and these phytoestrogrens, but I'm currently looking at colon cancer. Basically, how can food and food components modulate cancer development?

DP: There is increased attention on issues around food production and distribution, food safety, genetically modified foods. Can you talk about the value of that type of research in light of how pressing these issues seem to be?
KP: In my position with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, I can tell you that a number of national research priorities have been identified and the first of those is food for health, to understand how foods can promote health in the human population. There's also another aspect of that, and it's to promote the agricultural economy, to help farmers develop healthier foods that can then be put into the marketplace.

DP: Your work has real potential for positive impacts on communities at a very fundamental level. That has to be a strong motivator.
KP: Yes, definitely. And for me there is a personal connection as well. In my family right now colon cancer and the risk of colon cancer is elevated, and really all throughout Newfoundland. The province ranks as one of the highest in terms of incidence rates of the disease. Prevention is key as opposed to treatment. The way we're looking at prevention is to do it through healthy eating and to consume foods that hopefully have anti-cancer properties.

DP: In addition to your work with Agriculture Canada, you're also teaching. Do you enjoy that aspect of your work?
KP: Yes, very much. I give guest lectures and also supervise graduate students. I've also taken undergraduate volunteers into my lab, because I know from the experience that I had as a younger student that those opportunities really played such an important role in where I am now. So I'm keeping that as a priority.

DP: The Horizon Award is for extraordinary achievements of Memorial alumni under the age of 35. How does it feel?
KP: Obviously, I'm extremely honoured. It's actually nice to be able to look back because in the beginning of your career you're constantly looking forward. But for me, it's just that, a pause to reflect. I've got so much left to do.