‘Confident and resilient’, University of Toronto researcher Mulu Geletu Heye builds community in the lab and beyond

Mulu Geletu Heye once she had to travel for five hours, on short notice, for her doctoral dissertation defense at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her lab had just moved to Halle, Germany – and she was seven months into her second pregnancy.

“People asked me, ‘Are you crazy? Just give up and then defend,” recalls Geletu Heye, who is a senior research associate in Professor Patrick Gunning’s lab at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. since 2013. “But I said, ‘No, I want to do this.’ I didn’t want to waste a year or more, so I traveled the 500 kilometers to do my thesis defense.

“I just knew I could do it, and I did.”

This is just one example of Geletu Heye’s resilience and confidence – traits she wants to pass on to the young people she now mentors.

In the Gunning lab, Geletu Heye oversees cell biology experiments that study key compounds against multiple cancer cell lines, testing the effectiveness of drugs that chemists design and develop. While most Gunning Lab students have a background in chemistry, Geletu Heye’s cell biology expertise provides insight into the biology experiments they do as part of their research.

Mulu Geletu Heye

She also brought a project from her old lab that focuses on the caveolin protein, which is involved in many biological processes.

Geletu Heye, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, says she has loved science since she was a child.

“I was always thinking about animals and plants, I wanted to understand how systems work – and I was particularly interested in the biological sciences, so because of that I stayed in the life sciences, especially the biology,” she says.

After high school, she got a scholarship to St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Geletu Heye says the drive to pursue her academic dreams outweighed the obstacles she had to overcome, including adapting to a new culture and learning Russian. Her perseverance paid off and she mastered the language and completed her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and a master’s degree in biochemistry.

With these degrees, Geletu Heye returned to Ethiopia to work as a research assistant, but she could not stifle her academic ambitions.

Once she found the right supervisor to oversee her project to study a protein associated with leukemia, she was accepted to do a PhD at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University, with a scholarship. She ended up learning another language and graduating magna cum laudethe second highest honor awarded to holders of a doctorate.

She came to Canada to work as a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of microbiologist Leda Raptis at Queen’s University. Cancer survivor and brilliant scholar Geletu Heye says Raptis embodies resilience.

“Professor Raptis played a huge role in my career and my work ethic,” says Geletu Heye, noting that Raptis held a place for Geletu Heye until the birth of her second child and was ready to join. the laboratory.

“I learned a lot from her and definitely intend to support other scholars in any way I can in the way I was supported.”

Mulu Geletu Heye conducts Gunning Lab tours for high school students (photo courtesy of Mulu Geletu Heye)

Geletu Heye’s interests go beyond the laboratory.

Since 2018, she has been teaching the Amharic language every Saturday to elementary school children in Peel Region. The group has the chance to showcase traditional Ethiopian food, clothing and music.

“This experience has also improved my teaching skills, but I think it is important to broaden the knowledge of the younger generation about culture and identity, so that they know the language and the land of their ancestors, their history and their geography.

Apart from bridging cultures, Geletu Heye also aims to be a channel for young people to connect with research.

Over the past seven years, during March and summer school breaks, Geletu Heye has brought 10 to 15 local high school students to Gunning Lab. She shows them how research is done and gives them the opportunity to meet graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Mississauga, who share their experiences. It’s a way to motivate and inspire young students, she says.

Some of the recent visitors ended up studying science at U of T, with some enrolling directly at U of T Mississauga after high school.

Geletu Heye hopes to impress upon high school students that research can be difficult, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

“I always tell young people that they have to be confident and resilient,” says Geletu Heye.

“If you keep these two words in mind, no one will stop you from doing what you want to do. Don’t give up – ask for help and get advice,” she says, adding that family support is often important to a student’s success.

Still connected to her Ethiopian community, Geletu Heye has been called upon to provide assistance to those affected by an ongoing civil war in northern Ethiopia. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 3.5 million people have been displaced and nine million are in need of food assistance.

In her role with the Ethio-Canadian Network for Advocacy and Support (ECNAS) for Toronto and Greater Toronto Hamilton Area, Geletu Heye visited Ethiopia earlier this year and witnessed the suffering on the ground.

“It was so devastating, so painful,” she recalls. “I just cried a lot there when I see people – women and children in particular – are really affected.”

She says she is grateful to the University of Mississauga community, including members of the Recreation, Athletics & Wellness Center and the Institute for Management & Innovation who donated to the call from ECNAS so far.

“We gave donations of food and clothes, all those things that we collected, including books for children, who can’t go to school.”

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