U of S medical student drawn to research

Student chosen as one of the Top 20 Under 20 in Canada by Youth In Motion, a non-profit organization that celebrates young Canadians who demonstrate innovation, leadership and achievement.

Photo of Neil Kalra. (Phot Credit: Scott Bell for the University of Saskatchewan).

When Neil Kalra was in grade nine, he was already doing innovative medical research.

He captured top prizes at high school science fairs with projects he says “only begged to be further investigated.”

By the time he started classes two years ago at the University of Saskatchewan, he had co-authored and presented two papers for the Canadian Association of Pathologists.

“Some people read novels. I liked to read medical journals,” says Kalra, who is now in his first year medical studies at the U of S.

He holds the George and Marsha Ivany President’s First and Best Scholarship valued at $24,000 over four years—one of many in a long list of awards.

Kalra, 20, wants to be a practising physician who also does research.

“They might be behind the scenes, but medical researchers can make a huge difference. Research can give clinicians important knowledge they can use to give better health care,” he says.

In June, Kalra found out he was chosen as one of the Top 20 Under 20 in Canada by Youth In Motion, a non-profit organization that celebrates young Canadians who demonstrate innovation, leadership and achievement.

“We need bright individuals like Neil to stick with their research and be able to translate research knowledge quickly into medical practice,” says Dr. Anurag Saxena, U of S professor of pathology and laboratory medicine who supervised Kalra’s early work in the lab and nominated him for the honour.

“Neil has shown that he can do the juggling act–and excel at just about anything he puts his mind to,” Saxena says.

“It takes a very special doctor to practice medicine and remain involved in the research community.”

Kalra’s love of scientific research began early. When other teenagers were spending their spare time at the mall, he was approaching U of S professors to help out in their labs, with the encouragement of his family and teachers.

Kalra dedicated his time on evenings and weekends in high school to lab research that would take him three years to complete.

“I’ve always been interested in why things happen, and I wanted to do something hands-on,” Kalra says.

He has already contributed to findings that could lead to improved treatment for patients with lymphoma, a type of cancer, and give doctors a tool to predict a patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke.

As part of a team of research associates and students at the university, he used a new research method called tissue array to put cells under the microscope and examine special proteins in patients with lymphoma.

The study found that by measuring a specific type of protein, doctors could detect abnormal protein levels and predict early in treatment whether cancer would become a more aggressive type.

In another collaborative study, he and the team found that certain proteins promote “cell suicide,” causing blood clotting and plaque development which could lead to a heart attack or stroke. By identifying who is at risk for abnormal cell death, doctors may one day be able to better predict who is at risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Kalra insists that “it’s not about being first—it’s about expanding on other researchers’ work, testing others’ hypotheses, and contributing something from which others can build knowledge.”

Kalra, whose father is a U of S professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, hasn’t decided what area of research he will focus on, but his motto has served him well so far: “work hard and the little things will take care of themselves.”

Lisa Johnson is a graduate student intern for the U of S research communications office.

This article first ran as part of the 2010 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the U of S Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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