McMaster graduate student Blessing Bassey working in her lab.
McMaster graduate student Blessing Bassey's research focuses on improving the diagnosis and health outcomes for patients with triple negative breast cancer. Photo by Peter Self

November 1, 2013

McMaster PhD student awarded prestigious Faculty for the Future fellowship

When McMaster student Blessing Bassey speaks of her dreams for the future, "giving back" to the people of her native Nigeria is a priority for the PhD candidate.

For now, Bassey spends her days in a McMaster lab, looking for ways to improve diagnosis and health outcomes for individuals who have triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), an aggressive form of breast cancer that is predominant among women of African descent.

"During my first year, I worked with my supervisor, Dr. Juliet Daniel, to determine what areas of cancer research I would focus on," Bassey says. "We decided on TNBC, as there was a need in this area, but most importantly, my research would give me the opportunity to contribute to the health of black women."

Currently, three key biomarkers (ER, PR and HER2) enable doctors to diagnose, determine a treatment plan and a prognosis for other breast cancers. However, TNBC lacks the expression of these biomarkers. This means that diagnosing and treating TNBC is a challenge.

Currently, radiation and chemotherapy are the standard treatments, but neither has shown to be very effective, as triple-negative tumours frequently undergo early relapses, and are associated with high mortality rates compared to other types of breast cancer.

"Through my research, I hope I can contribute to finding a good diagnostic option that will lead to better – and targeted – therapeutic options."

Recently, Bassey was awarded a prestigous research fellowship ($43,000) through the Schlumberger Foundation's Faculty for the Future program to pursue her PhD research on TNBC. The fellowship is essential to her cancer research and will enable her achieve her research goals.

"For me to do a study that directly affects women of African descent, I need to gather tissue samples from Africa. Gathering those samples and transporting them to Canada is expensive. Hence, I am grateful for the Schlumberger fellowship as the resources provided will allow me circumvent this issue."

The Faculty for the Future program supports talented women scientists from developing economies, by helping them pursue advanced graduate studies in scientific disciplines, thereby helping to develop role models for future generations. Since its inception by the chlumberger Foundation in 2004, the program has awarded grants to 323 women from 63 countries.

Home is where the heart is

Bassey's graduate research has taken her to the United Kingdom and Canada, but the future belongs to her first love – her native Nigeria and the school where she completed her undergraduate education, University of Calabar.

"Without that base education, I wouldn't be where I am today," she says.

Bassey has no hesitation, no second thoughts about going home – a position at her alma mater is awaiting her return and she looks forward to sharing with the next generation of Nigerian students, all that she has learned.

"I want to return home with the expertise I've acquired from outside the country, so I can give back to my people, to students who do not have the opportunity to travel abroad to acquire foreign education and skills."