Elisabeth Prince, who completed her PhD in the Polymers and Materials Chemistry Program under the supervision of Professor Eugenia Kumacheva, is the recipient of the 2022 Chair's Doctoral Medal as well as the 2021-22 Governor General’s Gold Medal
For her dissertation, Prince focused on developing hydrogels that mimic the nanofilamentous extracellular architecture found in human tissues. By using nanocellulose, a form of the organic nanoparticle derived from plant matter, Prince was able to create a new, sustainable medium that not only displayed mechanical properties similar to biological tissue but also successfully supported the growth of patient-derived micro-tumours. It’s work that will have a significant impact on the field – the hydrogels offer a new biomaterial for developing individualized cancer therapies, without the problems of the currently used cell culture matrices derived from mice.
Before Prince was conducting experiments in the lab, she was cooking up new recipes in her father’s kitchen. She says her love of chemistry was inspired by her father, a professional chef, and the times she spent working for him in his kitchen.
“I think the experimental aspect is the same,” she explains, laughing. “If you have this ingredient, how will it change the flavour? You have to try different techniques. I think that is why I was so drawn to chemistry.”
Reflecting on her academic success, Prince says that cultivating interests outside of her research was crucial to keeping her motivated. In addition to cooking and baking, she also enjoys figure skating, a sport she returned to in graduate school after a long hiatus. She believes it’s good to have a sense of accomplishment – like learning a new spin – that has nothing to do with science. “It helps keep a sense of balance in your life.”
She’s also deeply grateful for the tight-knit group of friends from her program, many of whom she still speaks to regularly, as well as the support and guidance of her supervisor. “I felt like my supervisor really believed in my project and saw potential in me. So even when I was demotivated and things weren’t working in the lab, that helped lift me up and made me keep going.”
Prince is currently pursuing an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, where she is developing new chemical strategies for managing plastic waste. Her long-term goal, however, is to come back home to Canada. “I want to build a research team there to help grow Canadian innovation in the science sector. I want to contribute to training the next generation of scientists, that is something I’m really passionate about.”