Sienna Drake of Nelson has entered the PhD program in neuroscience at McGill University at age 23. Photo: Kim Gruver

Nelson graduate student wins prestigious Vanier Scholarship

Sienna Drake, studying at McGill University, will receive $50,000 per year for the next three years

When Sienna Drake was five, she enthusiastically enjoyed kindergarten and asked her mother what the next step was.

Her mother, Andromeda Drake of Nelson, explained how school starts in Grade 1 and progresses to Grade 12.

The child was very disappointed to learn that school ended after only 12 years.

So her mother told her about the levels of university education up to PhD.

“Well, I’m going to get a PhD then,” was the reply.

Now 23, Sienna has just finished the first of four years of a PhD program in neuroscience at McGill University.

And along with 18 other McGill students, Drake has just won a Vanier Scholarship, worth $50,000 for each of her remaining three years of study and research.

Drake entered the doctoral program so young because of a fast-track process that allows students enrolled in a master’s program to take a PhD candidacy exam, and, with a good enough result, bypass the masters program.

Her research topic is the mechanisms underlying disease progression in multiple sclerosis.

“It’s a very interesting autoimmune disease because there’s a lot of damage to the central nervous system, which is what I’m actually interested in — the nervous system side of things and not so much the immune side.”

She says in MS there is always significant damage to neurons, which are part of the nervous system.

“The question I am asking for my PhD thesis is why? How does inflammation affect these cells so they start degenerating? It’s not exactly a straightforward process. We don’t know how neurons respond to inflammatory signals.”

A love of complexity

Drake says she has always been into science.

“In high school, especially, I really loved my biology classes, learning about how biological systems function together, and all of the components that go into creating a cell, that go into creating an organism. It’s all so complex.”

Drake says she’s always loved complexity.

“I was also very into chemistry in high school, and math and other sciences. And I tried to go into my undergrad to do all of them. But I found out you can’t do an undergrad in everything, so I focused on cellular biology.”

Related story: David Drake, Nelson mathematician and poet, dies at 88

The Vanier scholarship is given for leadership, not just academic achievement.

Drake’s history of community leadership and activity is extensive: president of the L.V. Rogers Amnesty International group with a focus on the Highway of Tears, performing as a pianist at the Starbelly Jam festival, acceptance into the University of Calgary’s Arts and Sciences Honours Academy, a year studying at Lund University in Sweden, and a manuscript published in Nature magazine.

As president of her graduate students association she’s advocated for student accessibility and inclusion, and for better policies in mental health and sexual harassment in academia. She has co-ordinated grad student scientist volunteers for an after school elementary school science program called I Speak Science, co-hosted with two other science graduate students the podcast not yet a dr, and co-ordinated a project in Montreal to subsidize air conditioners to help prevent a heat-related health crisis.

While she continues the “very all-consuming adventure” of delving into the mysteries of neuroscience, Drake plans also to continue her strong focus on improving the lives of students in academia.

“Students are not just students,” she wrote in her application for the Vanier scholarship. “As individuals we are refugees, we are LGBTQIA2+, we are people of colour, and more. It is my goal to improve the academic environment in a way that leads to a respectful and supportive community protecting the interests, rights, and ultimately health of all voices in science.”

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