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Computing the best cure for cancer

September 8, 2015

Computing the best cure for cancer
Jenna Butler, BSc’09, PhD’15, developed a computer simulation program that predicts the best combination drug treatments for different types of cancer. She received a $15,000 Ontario Graduate Scholarship in support of her research efforts.

At the age of 14, Jenna Butler, BSc’09, PhD’15, discovered her life focus. Her mother passed away from pancreatic cancer and that untimely loss set Jenna on a determined path: to cure cancer.

“My mom was a teacher. She inspired me to learn when she was alive but in her death, gave me a course of study,” says the 27-year-old mother of two and recent Western graduate.

As she grew up, Jenna came to understand that while she might not be the one to cure cancer, she desperately wanted to make an impact in any way possible.

One of her undergraduate professors at Western turned her on to bioinformatics – an interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools for understanding biological data.

“I always liked science, but I was trying to force myself to excel in biology when really my true interest and aptitude was math and computers,” she says.

Once in a field more suited to her, Jenna began to attack the cancer epidemic by creating computer simulations of the growth of different types of tumours. Her doctoral research used these simulations to predict which combination of drug treatments would be most effective for certain types of cancers.

During her PhD, Butler was fortunate to receive donor support and funding in the form of an Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). She says the award allowed her to avoid taking on a part-time job and kept her out of debt while focusing on her research. It also allowed her a certain amount of school-life balance, as she got married and had two children all while knee-deep in her research.

“The OGS gave me the time to explore what I really wanted to research and, at the same time, I didn’t have to put the rest of my life on hold to do so,” says Jenna. “The scholarship also gave me a lot of confidence. It helped affirm that not only could I do it, but that others believed I could too.”

Jenna explained her research at Western’s 3-Minute Thesis competition in April, taking home top honours for conveying the impact of her work to a non-scientific audience. She went on to place second in the provincial competition and fifth nationally.

While completing her PhD, Jenna found herself following in her mother’s footsteps by teaching an undergraduate course in Computer Science. Her enthusiasm and efforts earned her the acknowledgement of a USC Alumni Teaching Award in 2014.

“I absolutely love teaching and would be thrilled to return to Western one day as a faculty member,” she says. “It’s funny, you have all these ideas about who you’re going to be and then one day you realize you’re just like your mom.”

For the immediate future, Jenna and her family are off to Seattle, where she’s accepted a position as a software development engineer at Microsoft. She feels the industry experience is particularly important in her field and will help her in the long run if she does plan to return to academia.

“I am so thankful for every scholarship and opportunity and believe that God has put me on this path so that I can make a difference.”

This article appeared in the 2015 edition of Annual Impact
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