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UA Alumni - Rachel Theriault

Rachel was a Highly Commended Entrant in the Computer Science category in 2020.

Since she received her award, Rachel has graduated with an Undergraduate Degree in Computing and a Master's Degree in Artificial Intelligence from Queen's University at Kingston. She is currently completing her PhD.

What are you doing now and what has happened since the award?

I am currently a PhD student at Queen’s University at Kingston, continuing my research from my undergraduate and master’s degrees in the application of machine learning to cancer research. I am honoured to be able to be a part of the mass spectrometry team at Queen’s University which includes surgeons, biologists, chemists and computer scientists working towards the common goal of improving cancer patient care and treatment.

During my Master’s I was supported by the Vector Institute of Artificial Intelligence which allowed me to attend lectures relating to the field of AI. Through my courses, I was able to gain deeper insight into machine learning for other applications such as genetic data. I have enjoyed learning the different applications of machine learning to the healthcare field and how to become a better researcher.

What do you like the most about what you do?

What I like most about my work is the intersection between life sciences and computer science. I enjoy this intersection because it allows me to develop an understanding in the bigger picture of my research and data. This has allowed to me to be a part of many cool projects that will hopefully contribute to advancement in patient care and treatment.

What are your plans/dreams for the future?

My dreams for the future are to continue to do the research that brings me joy and to find where I can make the largest positive difference. I hope to continue working in the field of cancer research, and I would one day like to specialize in Pediatric Oncology and Care.

Have you done something fun or weird since you were awarded?

I used to be a competitive dancer from grades 2 to 12 and continued to dance recreationally at Queen’s throughout my undergraduate degree.

How was your experience as an undergraduate student? Was it easy or did you face any struggles?

My experience as an undergraduate student was definitely not easy, but I am very lucky to have a supportive family in addition to my friends at Queen’s. In grade 8 I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety. This is something I have had to learn to cope with and at times it can feel very overwhelming when also handling a large course load. However, with my coping strategies I was able to complete 2, and hopefully 3 degrees in a challenging field doing what I love.

Many people face barriers much larger than myself. The strength and kindness of those around me has contributed greatly to me being able to find the drive to continue to learn and grow.

What advice would you give current undergraduate students or recent graduates?

The best advice I have received in terms of academics and career planning was from my grade 12 biology teacher and it was to have an open mind and an open heart. This is something I continually push myself to do as new or unexpected opportunities may present themselves I did not realize I would enjoy.

I had a common story of wanting to attend medical school when I began my undergraduate degree. I accepted a research position as a summer job thinking I would not enjoy it and unexpectedly fell in love with research. I now find myself about 4 years later completing my PhD in that same lab doing work that I am proud to be a part of. It is fantastic to have goals and passions, but my advice would be to not be afraid to also let yourself explore new ones.

Has receiving an award for your hard work helped?

Receiving the award helped to validate my place in the field of computer science and increase my confidence as a member of this rapidly evolving field. This also gave me the confidence to continue pursuing my research interests.

Why should students submit their work?

I think students should submit their work as a celebration of the hard work they have put in to reach this point. I submitted my undergraduate research not expecting to receive an award, but just because I was proud of what I had done. My supervisor Randy E. Ellis often says what you should be proud of is reaching the point of submission.