The honourable Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, who is a member of the George Gordon First Nation, was born in 1945 to a Cree mother and a Chinese father. After completing a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters of Science in Biochemistry, and a PhD in Biological Psychiatry — all from the University of Saskatchewan — she went on to become a professor in the university’s Neuropsychiatry Research Unit. Notably, she is one of the first First Nations women in Canada to receive a PhD in the sciences.
Dyck’s early life and early career
In a 2013 interview, Dyck recalled how in her early life, her older brother Winston was physically and verbally bullied for being Chinese, and the siblings kept their Indigenous identity hidden to prevent further discrimination.
Her professional success was similarly met with sexism and racism. She expressed that she received many comments that diminished her importance in her roles as a professor and associate dean at the University of Saskatchewan.
Dyck was initially drawn to studying the intersection between biochemistry and alcoholism, prompted by the racist stereotype regarding Indigenous peoples’ susceptibility to alcoholism. She started off with research surrounding alcohol metabolism in Indigenous peoples before shifting to research drugs later in her career and their mechanisms of action for treating strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.
In a paper published in July 2008, Dyck and her team reported on the effects of an antipsychotic drug, quetiapine, on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. As of September 2022, the FDA has approved this drug to treat schizophrenia, mania, and Major Depressive Disorder, and research has indicated its potential uses for anxiety that are not yet approved.
One of the main physiological indicators of Alzheimer’s is the aggregation of amyloid beta protein plaques — clumps of proteins that disrupt the proper function of cells — in the brain. Dyck’s 2008 paper explains that quetiapine can reduce the cytotoxic oxidative stress that results from failure to detoxify reactive molecules in cells caused by amyloid beta plaques. Dyck’s research has also shown that quetiapine can reduce memory dysfunction, as well as the amyloid precursor proteins that can lead to Alzheimer’s in certain mice models. Further, they explained how the amyloid beta protein aggregates produce an unstable reactive hydroxide molecule (OH⁻), which causes a positive feedback loop for the increased formation of amyloid beta protein aggregates. Quetiapine is supposed to capture OH⁻ and thus reduce protein aggregation.
Identity and research
Alongside her biochemistry-based research, Dyck also explored the relationship between a researcher’s identity and research. Her 1996 paper, “An Analysis of Western, Feminist and Aboriginal Science Using the Medicine Wheel of the Plains Indians,” does what most conventional science papers do not — it dissects how identity influences the work of a scientist.
This is an incredibly unappreciated realm of science as — the majority of time — research is claimed to be done objectively, ignoring the potential confounds of culture and identity. Dyck writes, “The public usually assumes that scientific enquiry is not affected by the scientist’s preconceptions (scientists are considered selfless and objective) and the scientific method itself is thought to be immune from bias, so scientific experiments are thought to lead inevitably to indisputable results.”
Dyck has received a number of awards, including a Young Women’s Christian Association Lifetime Achievement Award. She joined the Canadian Senate in 2005, and was a member of the Progressive Senate Group, holding the roles of deputy chair and chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.