‘Confident and resilient,’ University of Toronto researcher Mulu Geletu Heye builds community in lab and beyond

A senior research associate at U of T Mississauga, Mulu Geletu Heye, right, brings cell biology expertise to the Gunning Lab, engages in outreach work with high schools and teaches children how to speak Amharic (photos courtesy of Mulu Geletu Heye)

Mulu Geletu Heye once had to travel for five hours, on short notice, for her PhD thesis defence at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her lab had just moved to Halle, Germany – and she was seven months into her second pregnancy.

“People asked me ‘Are you crazy? Just drop out and do the defense afterwards,'” recalls Geletu Heye, who has been a senior research associate in the lab of Professor Patrick Gunning at University of Toronto Mississauga since 2013. “But I said, ‘No, I want to do this.’ I didn’t want to lose one year or more. So, I traveled the 500 kilometres to do my thesis defense.

“I just knew I could do it, and I did it.”

It’s just one example of Geletu Heye’s resilience and confidence – traits she aims to impart to the young people she now mentors.

At the Gunning lab, Geletu Heye oversees the cellular biology experiments that investigate the lead components against several cancer cell lines, testing the efficacy of drugs that the chemists design and develop. While most of the students in the Gunning Lab have a chemistry background, Geletu Heye’s cell biology expertise provides guidance on the biology experiments that they do as part of their investigations.

Mulu Geletu Heye

She also brought a project from her previous lab that focuses on the caveolin protein, which is involved in many biological processes.

Geletu Heye, who was born and grew up in Ethiopia, says she has loved science since she was a child.

“I was always thinking about animals and plants, wanting to figure out how systems work – and I was especially interested in biological science, so because of that I stayed with the life sciences field, specifically biology,” she says.

After high school, she was awarded a scholarship at St. Petersburg State University in Russia.

Geletu Heye says the drive to pursue her scholarly dreams was bigger than the obstacles she needed to overcome, including adjusting to a new culture and learning Russian. Her perseverance paid off, and she mastered the language and completed her bachelor’s degree in biological science and a master’s degree in biochemistry.

With these degrees, Geletu Heye returned to Ethiopia to work as a research assistant, but she could not stifle her academic ambitions.

Once she found the right supervisor to oversee her project investigating a protein associated with leukemia, she was accepted to do a PhD at Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University, with a scholarship. She ended up learning yet another language and graduating magna cum laude, the second-highest honour given to PhD graduates.

She came to Canada to work as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of microbiologist Leda Raptis at Queen’s University. A cancer survivor and brilliant academic, Geletu Heye says Raptis embodies resilience.

“Professor Raptis has played a huge role in my career and work ethics,” says Geletu Heye, noting that Raptis held a spot for Geletu Heye until after her second child was born and she was ready to join the lab.

“I learned a lot from her and definitely intend to support other scholars in whatever way I can in the ways I have been supported.”

Mulu Geletu Heye organizes tours of the Gunning lab for high school students (photo courtesy of Mulu Geletu Heye)

Geletu Heye’s interests extend beyond the lab.

Since 2018, she has been teaching the Amharic language every Saturday to elementary school children in the Peel region. The group has a chance to showcase traditional Ethiopian food, dress and music.

“This experience has also enhanced my teaching skills, but I think it is important to expand the younger generation’s knowledge of culture and identity, for them to know their ancestors’ language and land, their history and geography.”

Along with bridging cultures, Geletu Heye also aims to be a conduit for youth to connect with research.

For the past seven years during the March and summer breaks from school, Geletu Heye brings 10 to 15 local high school students to the Gunning Lab. She shows them how research is done and gives them the opportunity to meet U of T Mississauga graduate and undergraduate students, who share their experiences. It’s a way to motivate and inspire young students, she says.

Some of the recent visitors ended up studying science at U of T, with some enrolling directly in U of T Mississauga after high school.

Geletu Heye hopes to convey to high school students that research can be challenging, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

“I always tell young people they have to be confident and resilient,” says Geletu Heye.

“If you keep these two words in mind, nobody will stop you from doing what you want to do. Don’t give up – ask for help, and get advice,” she says, adding that family support is often important to a student’s success.

Still tied to her Ethiopian community, Geletu Heye was moved to lend aid to those affected by an ongoing civil war in northern Ethiopia. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates more than 3.5 million people have been displaced with an estimated nine million who need food aid.

In her role with the Ethio-Canadian Network for Advocacy and Support (ECNAS) for Toronto and the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area, Geletu Heye visited Ethiopia earlier this year and saw first-hand the suffering on the ground.

“It was so devastating, so painful,” she recalls. “I just cried a lot there when I see people – women and kids especially – are really affected.”

She says she’s grateful to the U of T Mississauga community, including members from the Recreation, Athletics & Wellness Centre and the Institute for Management & Innovation who have donated to ECNAS’ appeal so far.

“We gave the donations of food and clothing, all these things we collected, including books for the kids, who are unable to go to school.”

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