Dr. Kim MacKay PhD) has earned her third USask degree, completing a PhD in bioinformatics in the Department of Computer Science in the College of Arts and Science. (Photo: David Stobbe)

Bioinformatics graduate applies PhD research to crop production

A high-achieving University of Saskatchewan (USask) computer science student—who earned more than $420,000 in awards during her doctoral studies—is among the top graduates receiving a PhD during USask’s virtual 2020 Fall Convocation celebration this month.

Dr. Kimberly MacKay (PhD) will be bestowed with her third degree from USask’s College of Arts and Science, after previously earning a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry in 2012 and a Master of Science in computer science in 2016.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MacKay and her fellow graduates won’t be able to take part in an in-person ceremony at this time. Instead, virtual convocation celebrations were planned to mark the students’ achievements this year, which suits MacKay just fine.

“I am very excited to celebrate the achievements and accomplishments of my fellow graduates,” she said. “Since my degree is in computer science, I find this virtual setting quite fitting.”

As she worked toward her PhD in bioinformatics—a field that combines biochemistry and computer science—MacKay earned 15 academic awards, including the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in 2016. The Vanier scholarship is considered to be the country’s most prestigious and competitive federal scholarship for top-tier graduate students. As a recipient, MacKay was awarded $150,000 over three years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

MacKay, who was born in Weyburn, Sask., and educated in Saskatoon, said it was “very surreal” to find out she was a Vanier winner.

“Four years later, it is still difficult to accurately put this experience into words,” she said. “Needless to say, it was one of my proudest moments during graduate school.”

During her PhD studies, MacKay developed new computational tools to help scientists “see” three-dimensional genome structure in cells based on data from biological experiments. Being able to see 3D structure is important because it helps researchers understand how genomes function under normal and abnormal conditions, said MacKay. The impacts and applications of her research could span multiple areas, including medicine and agriculture, and she is particularly interested in how the tools she developed can be applied to crop improvement.

MacKay was drawn to the research taking place within the Department of Computer Science throughout her graduate studies. She noted the department provided her with a unique opportunity to study questions at the interface of agriculture, biochemistry and computer science, while learning from experts in all of those fields.

“In my opinion, there is really no better place to do this type of research,” she said.

MacKay’s doctoral supervisor was computer science professor Dr. Tony Kusalik (PhD), who serves as the department’s director of bioinformatics. MacKay said Kusalik was “instrumental” in her success, and she is grateful for his support, guidance and meticulous editing over the years.

“Kim has been an excellent role model for students in the bioinformatics program,” said Kusalik. “It is a challenging program. Kim has demonstrated just how rewarding it can be to take on that challenge.”

Kusalik described MacKay as “a very determined and focused student” who had “definite goals and clear plans on how to attain them.”

“She was studious and showed outstanding academic ability across multiple disciplines. She was very hard working, and put in many long hours,” said Kusalik. “She was also involved in many activities—academic, administrative, outreach—and devoted substantial time and effort to all of them.”

This term, MacKay is now serving as a sessional lecturer in bioinformatics and computer science at USask, teaching the course BINF 210: Introduction to Bioinformatics Applications. She also obtained full-time employment in her field shortly after completing her PhD defence and is currently working as a bioinformatics researcher at USask’s Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS).

At GIFS, MacKay is applying and expanding on her PhD research, investigating how spatial information depicting three-dimensional genome structures can be used to produce better crops. She is collaborating on a variety of research projects at GIFS, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and USask.

“Overall, GIFS has been a great place to work and I look forward to continuing my research career there,” said MacKay.

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