Kim Hellemans: Addicted to teaching

When Kim Hellemans stumbled into a lab as a third-year Psychology student at McGill University, she never really left. Or she wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for the rats.

“As soon as a rat comes on me and licks me, I develop all these hives all over. And then, because I’m asthmatic, I start sneezing, my eyes swell up, and they become super itchy,” says Hellemans, an instructor in the department of neuroscience at Carleton University, about the allergy during her post-doctorate work at the University of British Columbia.

The situation is comically ironic. The majority of Hellemans’ research is conducted using rat models. But it was incredibly upsetting for her.

“Most of the time when I tell people that, they laugh, because it seems so strange. But they don’t realize how much it affected me – this was my career,” says Hellemans. She gestures to an old photo of herself on her computer: she’s in a lab, blonde hair in a ponytail, and a protective hospital mask on her face.

Neuroscientist Kim Hellemans poses with a model of a brain.

Hellemans didn’t always see herself in a lab. As an undergrad at McGill University, she wanted to be a clinical psychologist, but soon became interested in neuroscience. In her third year, she started doing research on pain for her thesis, working in a lab that used animal models to study pain perception.

She loved it and never looked back. “I kind of had this a-ha moment where I realized that what I wanted to do with my life was not to help treat mental illness, but help figure out what caused it,” says Hellemans.

One PhD from Queen’s University, and two post-doctoral positions later, Hellemans research became largely focused around one main topic: addiction.

“I’ve always found addiction fascinating. Not everyone becomes an addict. People experiment with drugs and some of them say, ‘that was nice, that was fun,’ but others downward spiral into addiction,” says Hellemans.

Her past research looked at the role of adverse early environmental experience on susceptibility to drug addiction. One of the key predictors of later life mental illness appears to be the experience of stress, Hellemans explains, such as physical or sexual abuse, poverty, or neglect. She used rodent models of social isolation rearing to explore changes in reward systems.

Recently, her research explored how prenatal exposure to alcohol influences later life susceptibility to mental illness. She used a rat model of FASD to look at how prenatal alcohol exposure influences neurobehavioural markers of addiction and depression. They paired male and female rats up in the lab and waited for them to mate and produce offspring. They then gave the ‘alcohol mother’ access to what Hellemans describes as a smoothie, containing alcohol and water. A pair-fed group and a control group received normal rat food. After the mothers gave birth, they studied whether the offspring showed increased depressive-like behaviours using a forced swim test, in addition to the brain and hormone levels.

Typically, the female offspring are culled in these kinds of studies, but Hellemans makes an effort to study both males and females in her research.

“I think science is now changing,” says Hellemans. “Nowadays, if you try to publish a paper where you’re only really looking at males and you don’t address the females, you get questioned.”

Ultimately, Hellemans says she is incredibly passionate about women’s health and mentorship, which she wants her research to reflect. It seems to be a marker of her own shifting priorities, which have slowly moved away from the lab to the classroom. Hellemans started teaching at Carleton University in 2008.

“I have always had such amazing mentors in my life, and I’ve had people who have helped me every step of the way. I want to pay it forward,” says Hellemans about her motivation for teaching.

Kim Hellemans in her natural environment: at the front of a classroom.

Hellemans, who describes herself as a, “life-long student,” says the highlight of her academic career was when she was awarded the Capital Educators Award in 2010.

“At that point, I felt all the sacrifice had been worth it,” says Hellemans. “It was amazing,” she says with a chuckle.

Now, it seems that most of Hellemans’ hardships are behind her. She is developing a proposal for a textbook and is working with Carleton’s Education Development Centre to put one of her neuroscience courses online. Still, despite everything, she can’t help but smile at the blonde woman in the photo with the hospital mask.

“I miss it, absolutely. It was why I went into it,” says Hellemans. “But in the end, it’s better.”

Comments are closed.