Mentor of Distinction
This bio was originally printed in Science Contours, Faculty of Science Alumni Magazine, Vol 19, # 1, Spring 2008. www.ualberta.ca/science.
Rheanna Sand ran home from school in Grade 5 and proudly announced to her mother she was going to be an astrophysicist. It had been a toss-up for a few years: space or dinosaurs.
More than 15 years later, Sand is neither a palaeontologist nor an astrophysicist, although she is well on her way to becoming a bona fide research scientist.
Born and raised in Edmonton as part of a traditional extended Métis family, Sand has strong community connections and a strong sense of cultural and feminist pride bestowed upon on her by a handful of mentors.
Her grandmother, Thelma Chalifoux, the first Aboriginal woman ever appointed to the Senate of Canada, taught her about politics and feminism. Her godmother is Tantoo Cardinal, the Alberta actress who has appeared on the big screen in ”Dances with Wolves," Black Robe,”Legends of the Fall, and the television series ”North of 60." From her, Sand learned not to be afraid of who she is, but to be proud of it and to celebrate her individuality.
And then there is her mother, Debbie Coulter. “My mom is very, very wise,” Sand said. “I learned just about everything else from her.”
Considering where Sand is today, that’s saying a lot.
”I’m in my third year of my PhD working in Warren Gallin’s lab studying voltage-gated potassium channels,” she said. “I’m using a snail toxin to investigate how the protein senses voltage. This has been a puzzle since potassium channels were discovered. Also, channel dysfunction can lead to diseased tissues, so understanding what causes the failure will help medical researchers develop treatments.”
For her academic accomplishments Sand received an NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship and was recognized by her community with an Alberta Aboriginal Youth Achievement Award for Senior Academic Achievement. Hosted by the Métis Nation of Alberta, the annual event celebrates the achievements of Aboriginal youth from across the province in a range of categories.
”To be recognized by both the scientific community and my cultural community is a great honour. At the AAYAA gala event they showed little movie clips on each of the award recipients. I am the first one in my family to be enrolled in a PhD program, and for the first time my family got to see me in my element, in the lab doing what I love. It was also the first time my work colleagues and friends got to see me surrounded by my community. It was definitely a meeting of my two worlds.”
Her community aren’t the only ones singing her praises. Gallin, her supervisor and mentor, sees huge potential in Sand as a research scientist. “She has an excellent combination of rigorous intellectual insight and focused practical skills that one rarely sees in a student at this stage of her career. She evaluates the options that she has for doing her research, makes a practical plan, and then executes it cleanly and intensely.”
Sand understands that with recognition comes an expectation to be a mentor herself. According to Gallin, she has been an excellent role model from the beginning.
”She is able to mentor students starting out in the lab, giving them solid advice and teaching by leading,” he said. “Rheanna demonstrates best practices, but at the same time she outlines the more common pitfalls, thus helping the student to learn the correct techniques in the context of things that could go wrong and could be avoided.”
Sand has won several teaching awards for her work in some of the undergraduate laboratories, including a graduate.