Trinity College's Lucas Penny graduates with an eye on the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel

June 22, 2022 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

When Lucas Penny walks across the stage in Convocation Hall to collect his degree today, he can look back to the experiences in his personal life that helped shape the direction of his undergraduate studies.

When he was 15 and already taking part in a research program for high school students at McMaster University, Penny’s close family friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“She underwent a lot of testing and treatment,” he says, “and it really made me question why her cancer didn't get detected earlier. It inspired me to get into research about early detection and how we can harness genetics to not only predict diseases but also develop personalized treatments.”

For example, one of the projects Penny worked on at McMaster was the creation of a proof-of-concept device for the early detection of breast cancer using saliva samples.

His interest in the barriers hindering access to self-testing was further kindled when he attempted to get tested for HIV.

“I’m gay, part of the LGBTQ2S+ community,” he says, “and the doctor at the clinic I went to made me feel very stigmatized and discriminated against. It was very uncomfortable.”

So today, while not sure if his future lies in academia or industry, Penny graduates with a specialist degree in molecular genetics with a major in global health and the goal of making a difference in healthcare accessibility.

Congratulations! How does it feel to be graduating, especially having spent half of your undergrad in a global pandemic?

It's unbelievable to think I’m at the end. It was four years ago now and I still clearly remember my first day at St. Hilda’s College — Trinity College’s residence — getting to my dorm room and unpacking. Graduation was a long time coming but at the same time, the four years have gone by so fast.

And I still remember the day in March 2020 — I was in my organic chemistry class — when we were all told to pack up our things and hunker down at home because of COVID. Looking back, I think the past couple of years have shown how well people were able to adjust and adapt to a very challenging situation.

At the same time, I feel luckier than the group that graduated last year because — knock on wood! — there's a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel now and this year’s graduands are entering a world that looks a little bit more like the pre-pandemic world.

Were molecular genetics and global health good choices?

The molecular genetics program was a great fit because I learned not only the fundamentals of wet lab research and genetics-based approaches for experimentation, but also modern techniques like functional genomics, computational biology and next-generation sequencing — new methods we can use to push the envelope for better testing and a better understanding of the human genome.

And in combination with that, I really wanted to do a global health-based degree because you can have all these innovations, but it's only going to help if countries not as fortunate as Canada have access to them. I wanted to understand the science but also how we can interpret disease to help people around the world.

Can you tell us about the research you were doing at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital?

I worked with a group that had just started a program called I'm Ready to Know. Their goal is to improve access for all Canadians to HIV self-testing. After my own experience with HIV testing, I began thinking about the different ways people could access HIV testing other than through the traditional doctor’s office. I reached out to Dr. Sean O’Rourke at the MAP Centre and started working with him by helping to spearhead a nationwide survey to better understand how to improve access for at-risk populations; Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC); sex workers and those in LGBTQ2S+ communities.

It explored different modes of access — whether through a shelter, an app or web service. Our research group also helped with getting Health Canada approval for HIV self-testing kits and our goal is to distribute over 50,000 of them across Canada. It's been so inspiring to see how many people and communities have come together to fight for this effort.

What was your experience at Trinity College like?

I love Trinity. I think it’s a very special place. The college system at U of T promotes such a strong sense of community and at Trin’ especially because it's one of the smaller, more close-knit colleges. It's really given me an opportunity to get to know many students and learn from them. I’ve made so many friends there and it's inspiring to see where their passions are taking them.

Also, I found you could reach out to the dons whenever you needed to talk about your undergrad, grad school, medical school or whatever. And there are a lot of people there in mentorship roles who really have their finger on the pulse of what U of T has to offer. For example, my participation at the MAP Centre was possible because of support from the Laidlaw Scholars program. But I didn’t know about Laidlaw until I chatted with a Trin’ academic advisor and a couple of students who had taken part in it.

If you could, what advice would you give yourself four years ago?

Prioritize your time. Make sure you're taking time for yourself. And remember that if you need them, U of T has great mental health services — something I didn't realize in first and second year.

Also, find what drives and inspires you, and focus on the things that help you reach those goals. At the same time, we’re all human, so balance that and enjoy your time at university. That's something I learned during the pandemic, that you can't sit at your desk for 12 hours a day. Surround yourself with good people and take the time to find joy in the world.

Congratulations to U of T’s Class of 2022!

Celebrate Convocation 2022 with us on social media by using the hashtag #UofTGrad22 and tagging @UofTArtSci in your posts.