The Jen Johnston Prize for Research Excellence

  • The Jen Johnston Prize for Research Excellence

The Jen Johnston Prize for Research Excellence

The Jen Johnston Prize recognizes excellence in trainee research with the aim of encouraging trainees to establish careers in cancer research. The award will be offered annually and will recognize a published paper that has a trainee as co or sole first author. Applications from trainees from all levels and cancer research disciplines will be considered. The Jen Johnston Prize is currently valued at $1,500 and will be presented at the annual BHCRI Workshop, where the recipient will give a platform presentation highlighting the published research. The award will alternate each year between discovery/fundamental, applied health (including population, psychosocial and behavioural) and clinical. Information on the recipient will be publicized on BHCRI’s website and social media platforms. This competition is open to current CRTP trainees or those who have completed within the last two years, from deadline date). The trainee can be at any level of training including, MSc, PhD, postdoctoral fellow or resident.

  • The 2023 award will be for Applied Health (including population, psychosocial and behavioural) research
  • 2024 — Clinical research
  • 2025 — Discovery/Fundamental research

Please download the application. The completed application may be sent to admin@bhcri.ca. The deadline for receipt of applications is 4:00pm ADT 10 May 2023.

“This was taken at a sci-fi convention the year before Jen died (Jen is on the left!). Jen was one of the makeup artists for the event. This picture captures Jen’s spirit and unwavering sense of fun” – Gerry and Judy Johnston

2023 Jen Johnston Award:

Dalhousie Alumna recipient of Research Excellence Award for her research on fear of cancer recurrence in survivors of childhood cancer

Kathleen Varty, CRTP Trainee, University of New Brunswick

In Canada alone, more than 800 children under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Thanks to advances in cancer research, more than 80% survive. Many of these young survivors face the fear that their cancer may recur – a fear that can cause psychological distress, heightened vigilance toward bodily symptoms, and increased utilization of outpatient and emergency services.

The Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute’s Jen Johnston Prize for Research Excellence aims to recognize outstanding trainee research and encourage trainees to pursue careers in cancer research. This annual award acknowledges a published paper with a trainee as either the co-first author or sole first author. The award was established in 2022 from memorial donations honouring Jen Johnston, daughter of BHCRI’s former Scientific Director, Dr. Gerry Johnston. Jen tragically lost her life to advanced breast cancer in 2021.

Perri Tutelman (photo provided)

This year’s recipient is Dr. Perri Tutelman, a PhD graduate from Dalhousie University’s psychology department. Currently, Perri is a postdoctoral fellow in psychosocial oncology at the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services. Dr. Christine Chambers, Perri’s PhD supervisor, commends Perri for bringing numerous attributes to the team, including perseverance, genuine concern for children, and a willingness to embrace new approaches.

Advancing our understanding of survivorship issues in a pediatric population

Perri is being awarded for a component of her PhD research, which focused on pain and the fear of cancer recurrence in children. Her published work centres around the development and validation of a questionnaire that assesses fear of cancer recurrence in survivors of childhood cancer and their parents. “Fear of cancer recurrence likely affects childhood cancer survivors and their parents too, but there has been little research in these populations.”, says Perri. She goes on to explain, “One of the main reasons for the lack of research on fear of cancer recurrence in child survivors is that no questionnaires have been developed to accurately measure fear of cancer recurrence in this unique age group. The goals of this project were to develop two questionnaires: one to measure fear of cancer recurrence in survivors of childhood cancer between the ages of 8-18 years, and another to measure fear of cancer recurrence in parents of childhood cancer survivors.” Christine Chambers, Perri’s PhD supervisor states, “Perri’s research on pain in childhood cancer survivors plays a vital role in advancing our understanding of survivorship issues and informs evidence-based practices aimed at improving the well-being and quality of life of children after cancer treatment.”

Perri has always possessed a keen interest in working with children, particularly those facing medical conditions. Growing up in Vancouver, she volunteered at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, the first freestanding children’s hospice in North America. Through this experience, Perri developed a profound appreciation for assisting children and families navigating incredibly challenging circumstances due to life-limiting or life-threatening illnesses. Perri reflected saying, “From that experience I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to both helping support kids and their families going through cancer, but also on a larger scale by contributing to research that would advance their care.”

At the beginning of her PhD journey, Perri sought to explore the connection between pain and the fear children face of cancer recurrence. While fear of cancer recurrence is an established construct with validated measurement tools for adults, Perri acknowledges the complexities of adapting these measures to children. She notes, “For children who have gone through cancer there are many developmental factors that come into play that effect the child’s understanding of their experience.”

As a clinician and researcher, Perri places great importance on ensuring her work yields tangible outcomes beyond publication, ultimately enhancing the lives of patients and their families. She remarks, ” Psychologists hear of fear of recurrence all the time. This is a huge issue that we hear patients talk about, but up until now we had no way to quantify it in children and see how they are doing and measure their symptoms.”

Patients and patient partners both play a critical role in Perri’s research. Maya Stern and Julia MacLeod, two patient partners, are co-authors of the study. Perri emphasizes their integral contributions at all stages of the research, stating, “It is important to acknowledge their valuable input.” “To me, being a part of Perri’s research brought a sense of realism to the work. Being able to ask, ‘what does this mean to me as a patient?’ brought new context/considerations to the data and findings at every stage of the research.”, says Julia.

Perri expresses immense gratitude to the BHCRI for their support throughout her PhD, which has propelled her into a career she feels passionate about. Her PhD experience was a collaborative effort, involving numerous contributors from her supervisor, and other BHCRI scientists including Dr. Conrad Fernandez and Dr. Robin Urquhart. It is also deeply meaningful for Perri to receive the Jen Johnston award as it allows her to continue her work with adolescents and young adults, carrying on Jen’s legacy.

“Throughout Jen’s experience with cancer, she exhibited great optimism, resilience and an abiding appreciation for the skill and dedication of the many health professionals that provided care.”, says Jen’s parents Gerry and Judy. “Jen recognized the need for research into all aspects of cancer care and we know that Jen would be pleased and proud of both Perri and the research to which she is so passionately committed.”  

The Jen Johnston Award

The Jen Johnston Award was established by in memoriam donations to BHCRI following Jen’s death. The award is to recognize excellence in research by a trainee (current or past) in BHCRI’s Cancer Research Training Program. The evaluation criteria for the award encompasses the excellence of the scientific work, potential impact on patient care, innovation, dissemination, outreach, and knowledge mobilization. The award will be formally presented at the annual BHCRI Workshop in October, where Perri will deliver a platform presentation highlighting the published research.

2022 Jen Johnston Award:

MC Wasson, The First Jen Johnston Prize Winner

— By Maria Laura Todesco, Public Relations student, Nova Scotia Community College

MC Wasson

One in eight Canadian women will develop breast cancer during their lifetime.  Every day, promising new research is adding to our understanding of this disease, leading to better diagnosis and treatments. So, when Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute (BHCRI) scientific director Dr. Gerry Johnston and his wife Judy lost their only daughter Jen to advanced breast cancer last year, they could think of no better way to honour Jen’s legacy than by asking family and friends to donate to BHCRI.

Months later, BHCRI created the Jen Johnston Prize for Research Excellence from memorial donations to honour and celebrate her life.

The inaugural winner of the Prize is Marie-Claire Wasson, a Dalhousie University graduate student in Pathology.

Wasson is a knowledgeable and kind person, appreciated by peers, colleagues and teachers. She enjoys being in contact with people and is motivated by understanding how cancer affects the whole family’s lives, not just researching it.

Wasson’s research focuses on discovering new treatments to improve the survival of triple-negative breast cancer patients. This involves researching new classes of molecules, termed long non-coding RNAs, that have been minimally studied but are proving to be potentially important in cancer treatment.  In the future, drugs that inhibit these cancer-promoting molecules could be developed to stop the growth and spread of cancer.

“By looking at a greater option of molecules to target with therapies, we might find a better treatment for cancer,” Wasson said. “I really hope to highlight this class of molecules and show that they’re really important for breast cancer progression.”

The Jen Johnston Prize has special meaning for BHCRI.  The entire BHCRI family knew Jen as a beloved and exceptional person whose three-year battle with advanced breast cancer did not deter her dedication to raising awareness and her commitment to ‘putting out a hand’ in raising funds for cancer research.

“Jen would say ‘thank you and keep going’ because she recognized the tremendous amount of effort that goes into cancer research,” said Dr. Gerry Johnston. “She was a ‘go-getter’. She was very joyful and optimistic, and she just didn’t let (cancer) get her down. You have to have that kind of personality and attitude, that’s critical, to do research in cancer treatment.”

This annual prize recognizes excellence in trainee research from all levels and cancer research disciplines to encourage trainees to establish careers in cancer research. The evaluation criteria include the excellence of the science, potential impact on the care of patients, innovation, and dissemination, outreach, and knowledge mobilization. The award is currently valued at $1,500 and will be presented at the annual BHCRI Workshop in May, where Wasson will give a platform presentation highlighting the published research.

Dr. Paola Marcato, her supervisor, believes Wasson’s work can impact the scientific community and is grateful to guide and mentor her.  “She is self-motivated, driven, intuitive and creative,” said Dr. Marcato. “Prizes in honor of someone like Jen Johnston motivate students to keep going and working hard. The recognition of their work lets students know their work is valued.”

Wasson hopes to start medical school after the completion of her doctoral degree. Those who have watched her career, like Dr. Marcato, know that she has the ability to apply research, computer science and medicine to ask the right questions and take care of cancer patients, which will make her a better physician. According to Dr. Marcato, “MC is an amazing student and I’m excited to see the things she will do because this is just the beginning for her.”

Pictured below, MC with Judy and Gerry Johnston.