Childhood experiences spark BPK grad’s passion for physiology and anatomy research

May 29, 2023
Lara Gastaldello leading a Science in Action anatomy workshop for K-12 students

When Lara Gastaldello was diagnosed with arthritis at a young age, she volunteered for clinical research studies at BC Children's Hospital to help improve treatment for other kids. The experience sparked her curiosity about the human body and led her to pursue a degree in Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology (BPK) at SFU.

“They drew my blood to research a potential new biomarker for juvenile idiopathic arthritis and used bone density scans and force plates to assess its effect on my musculoskeletal system” she says. “The research team showed me the tests they were performing to better understand the connection between juvenile arthritis and exercise. I was curious about the treatment and my scans, and I was interested to see what was going on inside my body. That was what first excited me about physiology and anatomy.”

The arthritis, which causes Gastaldello pain in her wrists and fatigue, still affects her on and off to this day. She recalls that when she first started at SFU Surrey her symptoms began to flare up. “I started a new medication just before the start of my first year there was a possibility it would interfere with my classes, so that was a stressful start to my SFU career. It came with many side effects, too, but fortunately I was put on a medication that worked and was into drug-induced remission by the next year.”

While at SFU she was determined to get experience with lab research. She first got involved with the Injury Prevention and Mobility Lab, and later connected with BPK professor Damon Poburko, who gave her the opportunity to work in his lab, the Molecular Cardiac Physiology Group.

Starting as a new undergraduate research assistant in Poburko Lab in September 2020 was a steep learning curve. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she was often the only person in the lab, and had to rely on her problem-solving skills to figure things out. “Dr. Poburko gave me lots of opportunities to try things,” she says. “He is very approachable, kind and understanding. We had talks about anxiety and mental health, and he is always available for support and advice.”

During her time there she had the opportunity to present her work virtually at the Society for Neuroscience Conference and is now preparing some of her research for publication.

Lara Gastaldello recently presented her research poster at the BPK Research Day

A co-op term at the Centre for Lymphoid Cancer and Terry Fox Laboratory at the BC Cancer Research Centre gave Gastaldello another window into research work. She worked with Dr. Leandro Venturutti to set up a new research lab and had many opportunities to connect with colleagues, including riding in the Tour de Cure.

“I’d learned the theories of the scientific method in classes, but at BC Cancer I got to use my knowledge to plan my research,” she says. “Getting to plan my own research using the things that I know about bioinformatics really allowed me to expand my critical thinking skills.”

Gastaldello found that carrying out original research in a lab was a very different experience from working in the classroom. “In class, we learn theories and simplified scientific concepts that can be easily tested. In reality, there are still many gaps in this knowledge and in class we aren’t exposed the trial and error process that led researchers to these concepts,” she says. “Research can be disappointing when it doesn’t work out, but even if you disprove something, you’re still making a contribution.”

Facilitating Science in Action workshops for K-12 students has been another way for Gastaldello to apply the knowledge she learned in class. In anatomy workshops she guides students through hands-on exploration of the human body using SFU’s Anatomage Table and specimens. “I love working with kids. It’s fun to teach them and spark their curiosity,” she says. “I hope I inspire young girls in particular to take an interest in the sciences.”

While Gastaldello earned valuable knowledge in class, the experiences she has had outside the classroom have made her time at SFU memorable. To new students she says “find a topic that interests you. When you take classes that you’re interested in, ask your instructors if there are any opportunities that are available in that area, in the lab, or Science in Action. You never know what opportunities you’ll find through talking with new people.”

“Remember to take time from your heavy workload to do something you're passionate about. Your mind and body need a break. You can’t possibly work all of the time.”