University of Lethbridge master’s student Richard McLean (BSc ’14) would be the first to tell you that all educational journeys do not follow the same path. In fact, some of the most unorthodox routes can lead to some of the greatest results.
McLean contributed to a groundbreaking study that was recently published in Nature, the world’s most-cited interdisciplinary science journal, with work he accomplished as an undergraduate student in an Applied Study setting with Dr. Wade Abbott, an adjunct chemistry and biochemistry professor. Given that McLean’s future was headed toward toiling in a kitchen rather than researching in a lab, the magnitude of this accomplishment is all the more impressive.
“At one point I was thinking, this is about as good as it’s going to get,” says McLean of his work as a cook in a variety of local restaurants before he decided to return to post-secondary studies. “Ultimately, my dad talked me into it and I thought maybe I should go back.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Man., McLean moved to Lethbridge at age 12 and excelled academically. A strong student out of Lethbridge Collegiate Institute, he went directly to the U of L following his high school graduation. After two years, his GPA sagging along with his interest level, McLean left to “do my own thing”. He and his family eventually realized he was destined for bigger things.
“Going from cooking in a kitchen where it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you don’t really see any rewards, to coming in here where everybody you work with is really invested, is working toward the same goal and is passionate about what they are doing – it’s a refreshing change,” says McLean.
He got his big break shortly after coming back to the U of L, when Abbott presented him with the chance to work in his lab.
“As soon as I gave him that opportunity, he worked like nobody I’ve ever seen,” says Abbott, one of the co-lead authors on the Nature paper, Human gut Bacteroidetes can utilize yeast mannan through a selfish mechanism, that was published Jan. 8, 2015. The study discovered that certain strains of bacteria in the human gut – Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (Bt) – have developed a taste for yeast, which may hold the key to strengthening the immune system in both humans and livestock.
“That’s one of the things that makes the U of L such a great school. Before I dropped out, I had kind of lost interest so my GPA was nothing to get too excited about, but I still had the opportunity to get into the lab,” says McLean. “At a lot of other schools you have only the top of your class struggling to get a position in a lab, so I feel quite lucky.”
His first task was to try and unlock the structure of a specific enzyme, something that Abbott and his colleagues had been unable to accomplish.
“It was the first time I’d tried the technique and all these other guys have tons of experience. I jokingly said that I probably did something wrong and that’s why it worked,” says McLean. “Sometimes the conditions are just right and everything falls into place.”
It proved to be an important part of the study and earned McLean his first publishing credit. Since then he has graduated and begun work, also with Abbott and Dr. Steven Mosimann, on his master’s degree. He’s now working on a project that is attempting to eliminate food-born pathogens, something he intends to transition into PhD studies down the road. His ultimate goal is to become a research scientist.
“I felt that Wade had given me a real opportunity to come and work in his lab so I really wanted to prove myself,” says McLean. “He rolled the dice on me and I wanted it to pay off for the both of us.”
It already has, and from the goals that McLean has established going forward, the journey is far from over.