After almost losing her mother, U of T grad dedicates herself to understanding brain disorders

“The only thing I wanted when I was a little girl was for my mom to be OK. And I want that for other people, too”

Olivia Hawco, whose research seeks to understand and treat brain disorders, is graduating from U of T Scarborough with an honours bachelor of science degree and plans to become a clinician-scientist (photo by Don Campbell)

Olivia Hawco was eight years old when she heard a scream from the bathroom – it was her mom, who had just felt something pop in her brain.

Hours later, Hawco learned her mom had suffered a massive stroke, the kind that kills most people before they can even get to the hospital. She was given a 50 per cent chance of surviving.

Doctors couldn’t operate or intervene, so they transferred her to another hospital for more tests. Miraculously, they found the bleeding in her brain had spontaneously healed itself.

“I remember the neurologist saying, ‘Your mom won the lottery,’” says Hawco, who is graduating from the University of Toronto Scarborough with an honours bachelor of science degree and plans to become a clinician-scientist. “The only thing I wanted when I was a little girl was for my mom to be OK. And I want that for other people, too.”

Her mother’s recovery was difficult. She was hospitalized for a week and had to relearn how to walk. Doctors never figured out how she healed herself so suddenly, or why her only lasting symptom was minor difficulties with short-term memories. 

The harrowing experience ignited Hawco’s lifelong passion to understand and treat brain diseases – and ultimately prevent them from happening in the first place.

At age 16, Hawco began volunteering at the Markham Stouffville Hospital, where her mom was initially treated. She started in the gift shop as a cashier and worked her way through the wings, assisting with CT scans, cardiology and oncology, and eventually helping in the same ICU where her mother almost died.

It was difficult to be back in that space, Hawco says, but that only made her more certain she was on the right path. 

She later enrolled at U of T Scarborough to pursue a specialist in human biology and, in her third year, took a course taught by Assistant Professor Kathlyn Gan in the department of biological sciences. Hawco grew fascinated with Gan’s neuroscience research and eventually landed a position in Gan’s lab, where she has remained ever since. 

“Although she joined my lab with no prior research experience, Olivia quickly grasped a wide variety of sophisticated experimental techniques that can elude experienced trainees,” Gan says. “Notably, she designed and executed her own undergraduate research project from scratch, systematically troubleshooting and optimizing her own experiments.”

Hawco is investigating neurons, the cells responsible for transmitting information around the brain. More specifically, she’s studying how neurons communicate by linking to one another through connections called synapses. Synapses degrade over time, leading to many of the aspects of aging that people dread, including memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia. 

For her undergraduate thesis, Hawco focused on a protein called SLIT1, which guides neurons to their proper place during early brain development. Hawco suspected SLIT1 could also be impacting the way neurons connect to one another. By working backwards, Hawco is examining how the brain first forms to hopefully create a drug or treatment that can help a damaged brain reform. 

“If you're able to form synaptic connections and prevent neuronal death sooner after a stroke, you wouldn't have the same detrimental side effects,” she says. “Maybe that can prevent some of the cognitive decline we see.”

Her work earned her the prestigious NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award last year and she will be supported by the NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship – Master’s Program as she prepares to build on her data and embark on more experiments during her master’s degree this fall. She also won the U of T Excellence Award to support her research this summer. 

Along with her family, Hawco credits the support she received from her mentors in the department of biological sciences, including Gan and faculty members Aarthi Ashok and Emily Bell. When she wasn’t in the lab, Hawco was involved in several campus clubs, including the Biology Students Association and MedLife, a non-profit that partners with low-income communities in Latin America and Africa to improve access to medicine, education and community development projects. 

Hawco also played soccer for most of her life and became a referee when she was just 16 – a role that she credits for having an influence well beyond the pitch.  

“Being a referee was hard as a young girl. You have parents – grown men – yelling at you and it can be daunting. I’ve heard my fair share of sexist comments. But I wouldn't trade it for anything, because it's made me realize the importance of confidence, having a thick skin, being a leader and advocating for yourself.”

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