In the blood

Some people know from a very young age what they’re meant to do with their lives. Modeline Longjohn is one of those people. For her, life is about channeling her insatiable curiosity into a career that challenges her while changing the world. She wants to dedicate her time, energy and passion to a cause that will leave a lasting impact on the world well after she’s gone. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that she feels is worth striving for.

Originally from Nigeria, Modeline completed her bachelor’s degree in genetics at the University of Liverpool before going on to complete a Master of Research in Cancer Biology at Nottingham Trent University. She is currently a PhD candidate in the department of Biochemistry at Memorial University researching immunology and cancer. Her work focuses on how genetic-material-carrying-extracellular vesicles can improve detection of pediatric B cell acute leukemia.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of childhood cancer. To test for this disease children receive a bone marrow biopsy and lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap. These methods are painful, invasive, and often require children and their families to travel great distances to facilities capable of performing these procedures. Modeline’s research aims to find an alternative— a simple blood test that can be done closer to home.

The outcome of this research will have a global impact. Once implemented, acute lymphoblastic leukemia testing will become more accessible to children all over the world, increasing the likelihood of early diagnosis and improving survival rates. It’s hard to imagine a loftier goal than helping fight pediatric cancer, and the weight of that endeavor isn’t lost on Modeline. She dedicates her days, and most nights, to her work. When exploring new frontiers for answers to life’s most puzzling questions, it can be hard to stop and take a break. Even though it’s not easy, she insists downtime is essential when playing the long game in a research career.

Like anyone, Modeline experiences periods of burnout. She’s driven, but that dedication to work can wear her down sometimes. It’s during these more exhausting moments that she turns to her family for support. Her younger brother, who lives in Nigeria with the rest of her family, has become her unofficial cheerleader and coach. They talk frequently on the phone about her work and its challenges, but his favorite piece of advice is to get some rest. Make time for sleep, and come back to the problem later with a fresh perspective. Modeline says talking to him and heeding his advice is often enough to help her find the resolve to keep going.

She believes having a support system is important, especially for graduate students who work long hours in pursuit of answers that can sometimes can feel elusive. Depending on the matter, she also leans heavily on her supervisor, Dr. Sherri Christian, who Modeline says is the best supervisor she could have ever hoped for. During periods of more intense stress, she visits a counsellor to help her develop ways to better manage issues. Counsellors can provide a non-judgmental, empathetic, and accessible means of finding a way forward. Modeline’s faith also plays a huge role in managing her stress loads and renewing her focus. Whenever she needs little extra strength, she’ll pray. She says praying gives her hope, and hope fuels her drive.

She also enjoys going for long walks and writing fiction. She has written and published several short stories, a novel, articles for magazines and editorials, and is currently working on a second novel in her spare time. She says writing comes easy to her and helps her unwind.

A career in research may not be for everyone, but for Modeline, it’s what she was born to do. There’s still a lot of work that lies ahead, but she refuses to let that pressure distract her from her goals. Her advice for others is to put your dreams in front of you and keeping going in that direction. “For me, this is my dream. This is what I want. There will be challenges. There will be struggles. But I will get through them, because that’s where I’m going.”

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