Based on an interview conducted by CurioCity volunteer Roshali Seneviratne.
Tell us about yourself
I was born and brought up in Kingston, Ontario. I attended Queen’s University, completing a B.Sc. (Hons.) in Life Sciences, followed by a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology. My graduate years, including a year at Oxford University, were spent working with baculoviruses.
After two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Sherbrooke, where I was introduced to adenoviruses, I came to Toronto to continue my postdoctoral work at SickKids. During that time, I started teaching microbiology at the University of Toronto. I eventually joined the faculty in the Department of Microbiology, which is now part of the Department of Molecular Genetics.
What is your research about?
I work with human adenoviruses—enteric adenoviruses types 40 and 41 in particular. They are unique among more than 70 types of human adenoviruses in that they cause disease only in the intestine. My question is “Why?”. The answer isn't obvious.
In the past few years, I have also started working on antiviral agents for treating potentially life-threatening respiratory infections caused by different types of adenoviruses.
What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
It’s fascinating! Even though there can be frustrating moments, there’s never a dull moment in research. There’s always something new because the answer to one question generates many more questions. It means that our work is never finished, but that is part of what makes it so interesting. There is satisfaction in seeing the results of many experiments come together to make a story.
What have you found most challenging about your research?
The viruses I work on do not grow very easily in cell culture. That has slowed progress. There are other experimental challenges that come up and that causes frustration from time to time. A major challenge in research is getting funding to support the work. Being able to “market” your ideas to funding agencies is an important skill. But it’s not one that comes naturally to some people.
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
It has been a series of stepping stones!
As a first-yearundergrad at Queen’s University, I got a summer job working with mosquitoes. During my second summer in the same lab, I met another summer student who suggested that I ask her father for a summer job after third year. That research experience was my introduction to virology.
My supervisor offered me a graduate position and I continued in his lab until I finished my Ph.D. The work I did as a graduate student, with genetic analysis of baculovirus mutants, is what interested me in postdoctoral work with adenovirus mutants in Sherbrooke.
When I came to Toronto for experience in clinical virology, I faced the challenge of working with enteric adenoviruses based on the experience I had acquired in working with adenoviruses as a postdoctoral fellow in Sherbrooke. While working at SickKids, I was introduced to teaching microbiology at the University of Toronto, which led to a faculty position.
How has your research impacted the world?
Methods I developed for baculoviruses and adenoviruses have been used by other virologists. But perhaps my research has had a bigger impact in a more indirect way. It enables me to enrich the lecture and laboratory courses I teach and to offer research projects to undergraduate students. I like to think that when they go out into the scientific world, my students take some of what they learned in my courses and my lab.
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
In the field of virology, a huge breakthrough would be repeated success in using viral vectors to treat cancer. Right now, there’s a lot of excitement and some encouraging results. However, current methods aren’t working for everybody. Researchers are trying to figure out why so they can make improvements. If those improvements lead to consistent success, it would be amazing!
It’s important to recognize that breakthroughs sometimes happen by accident and that it’s impossible to predict such things. That’s why basic curiosity-driven research is so important.
What motivates you to do research?
It’s fascinating! It’s interesting!
Tell us about your ‘Eureka’ moment.
As a Ph.D. student, I was generating mutant viruses, and one of them had such a striking morphology. I remember the first time I saw it in the microscope—it was an amazing feeling!
To find something new and significant during your research, and know that you (and your students) are the only ones who know about it, is really cool. And then you get to share your findings with the rest of the world!