A&S alumnus honoured with best graduate student paper in biology

November 28, 2019 by Neil Macpherson - Cell & Systems Biology

When Navroop Dhaliwal first observed unusual behaviour by a protein that plays a critical role in stem cell differentiation, the cellular and molecular biologist thought she had made a mistake.

Confused, she checked her work. “All the control experiments showed I was doing everything correctly.”

Dhaliwal proceeded to look deeper into what she called a “mind-boggling” observation, and the results of her research have now garnered her the Graduate Student Research Prize from the Canadian Council of University Biology Chairs (CCUBC) for the year’s best and most innovative refereed journal article in biology.

Dhaliwal recently completed her PhD with Professor Jennifer Mitchell in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, where she worked in the Mitchell Lab on studying enhancers — mechanisms that can increase or decrease gene expression.

Dhaliwal was studying a protein called KLF4 when she found that it exhibited unexpected stability, which turned out to be a key factor in stem cell differentiation — the process by which stem cells transform into specialized cells as part of crucial processes like organ formation. Many previous studies have focused on the genes that are turned on or off as stem cells become organs, and Dhaliwal’s work uncovered new mechanisms that initiate differentiation.

Having confirmed her results through rigorous experimentation, Dhaliwal knew her insight was important. “This is a clear-cut variation from the central dogma of molecular biology.”

The paper for which Dhaliwal won the CCUBC award was initially published in Genes & Development, the top journal for gene regulation and developmental mechanism research, in August of 2019.

An incredibly talented and insightful cellular and molecular biologist who established critical new techniques while also training others on those techniques. Her legacy will live on in my lab for years.

Dhaliwal’s paper “really impressed employers,” she says, “and led to me being approached and interviewed for postdoctoral studies.”

The A&S alumnus is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where she continues to investigate the implications of her recent findings, in particular studying brain development using brain cells derived from stem cells.

“My doctoral research in Professor Mitchell’s lab definitely trained my mind to find more logical and scientific answers to interesting mysteries in my field,” says Dhaliwal of her time at U of T.

In her nomination letter for the award, Mitchell describes Dhaliwal as “an incredibly talented and insightful cellular and molecular biologist” who “established critical new techniques” while also training others on those techniques.

“Her legacy will live on in my lab for years,” says Mitchell.

Read about Navroop Dhaliwal’s award-winning paper: