"I had never really left home before," she says, "but I knew I had to broaden my horizons, and learn English, if I could fully realize my potential. I thought that going to school in Montreal would be a great compromise. I could do research in English at McGill yet order food in French and therefore not die of starvation in my first year."
And while the first few months were challenging, her talents shone through fairly quickly. For while Gingras may not have been worldly, she did possess a great deal of scientific know-how.
For starters, her parents, both nurses, had fostered Gingras' creative and intellectual spirit since early childhood. "My father spent his spare time working on electronics, and I used to love helping him install transistors on circuit boards," she recalls. "He also had a fascination with chemistry and aerospace – my grandmother told me some pretty entertaining stories relating to his improper storage of rocket fuel – and hoped that one of the kids would become an astronaut or a chemist. I ended up the closest."
Gingras' mother, meanwhile, helped her develop her creative side and her lab hands by teaching her crafts and cooking. "She also bought me this super cool book of experiments called 'Le Petit Débrouillard' ('The Small Resourceful One'). I did every experiment in the book, some more than once."
After high school, Gingras stayed close to home and attended Laval University, where she studied biochemistry. The program at Laval focused heavily on laboratory and experimental work, and, by the time she graduated, Gingras had already developed significant hands-on experience.
"However, what really convinced me to go to graduate school was my summer project working for a just-starting young professor, André Darveau. As a new appointee, Darveau had a small team and taught me several important techniques himself while giving me a lot of independence. I really caught the research bug!"
Darveau also helped Gingras select some potential graduate advisors to meet with at McGill, which eventually led to her accepting a position with Nahum Sonenberg, whose group studied the mechanisms that control protein translation.
A productive start
Right as Gingras joined the lab, another graduate student, Arnim Pause, had just cloned two insulin-regulated small proteins that bind to eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4E, the protein that binds the cap on the end of messenger RNA and brings the RNA to ribosomes. These two peptides, 4E-BP1 and 4E-BP2, were found to inhibit cap-dependent translation when they bound.