Denise Hemmings

Denise Hemmings

Minerva Mentoring Award 2009

Barbara Chabai
2009-05- 2

Sometimes you just have to try things on the fly as you go along.


Trying things “on the fly” does not describe the deliberate path Dr. Hemmings took to becoming Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta’s Department of Obstetrics. In fact, she would be the first one to admit she took the long way to getting to where she is today.


“I did my PhD and post-doctoral fellowship here at the University of Alberta and then received my assistant professorship four years ago. But in between, I also got married, had three children, took 10 years off, got divorced and became a single mother,” she says. “I know I would not have got this far without the support and guidance of some tremendously important people in my life.”


Among the mentors that have meant the most to Hemmings, she credits the late Dr. Tom Wegmann, who took her under his wing during her undergraduate years.


“I was absolutely thrilled with a course I took from him and as a result, became quite interested in immunology. I went to him and asked what kind of career I could pursue in the field and he took me on as a project student and later, as a grad student in his lab.”


Within a few short years, Hemmings married and started a family, which led to her taking a sabbatical from the laboratory that turned into a 10-year leave of absence.


Two more kids and a divorce later, I decided to go back to university – but after 10 years, it wasn’t a simple thing to come back to. He realized that there were days I needed to be away from the lab and at home for my children.

Despite taking six years of study and having to sidestep comments from naysayers who doubted a single mom could manage the workload, Hemmings earned her PhD and says it remains one of the most cherished career milestones.


“It took a lot of work, but I was extremely proud of myself and proud of my family with sticking it out while I went to school,” she says. “There were times it wasn’t easy, but we managed.” 


After completing her PhD in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, Hemmings was introduced to vascular studies through her post-doctorate work in Dr. Sandy Davidge’s lab.


“Sandy took me on and continues to be a very important mentor in my life,” she says. Gynaecology, which allowed me to meld both fields of study into the program of research that I pursue in my laboratory.”


Today, Hemmings is happy with the balance between her personal and professional lives. Her partner, David Brindley, is a professor in biochemistry who “really gets me, understands my work and is probably one of my best mentors.” In her leisure, she enjoys time with her grown children and interests like skiing, quilting and gardening.


Hemmings has also found deeply satisfying work. The overall focus of her current research is determining how the vasculature of pregnant women changes to allow increased blood flow to the uterus. “As you can imagine, your blood volume increases dramatically when you are pregnant and more of this blood needs to reach the uterus to supply nutrients and oxygen to the baby. We’re interested in how poor vascular adaptations can negatively influence both mom and baby.”


The research that Hemmings and her grad students and technician are carrying out today may one day be partially responsible for implementation of a vaccine that will prevent CMV from causing prenatal complications such as preeclampsia or interuterine growth restriction.


“We want to provide further evidence to add to the argument that says we should use a vaccine to prevent this viral infection. At the very least, we should be routinely testing mom and baby to detect the infection early enough for treatment.”


Hemmings says that the most gratifying side of the work is in knowing she is accumulating data that will help create a better understanding of physiological changes during pregnancy.

I love being in the lab and love what we are doing from a research perspective. It is meaningful to be looking at something that is not only important basic research but has definite applicability to the human situation.


Another aspect of her position that Hemmings finds enjoyable is the opportunity to work alongside and mentor students. In addition to being recently appointed the new Vice-Chair of Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST), which delivers programs enabling and encouraging women to engage and advance in careers in science, engineering and technology, she is also welcoming five students to her lab this summer.


“I really enjoy having students in the lab. They’re so happy you can feel it.”


Mentoring remains very important to Hemmings, who attributes it to the fact that she was, and continues to be, well mentored in her career. “I’m still able to go to my mentors and ask questions and know they’ll still be able to help me on my way,” she says. “I want to be able to give that to the students that I mentor so that they can one day go on and mentor someone else. I learn so much from my students."