Based on a interview conducted by CurioCity volunteer Roshali Seneviratne.
Tell us about yourself
I’m an Associate Professor at York University and have been here since 2009. I’m originally from Barrie, Ontario. I’m a molecular biologist and biochemist. I did my undergraduate degree at McGill University, my Ph.D. at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and my postdoctoral training at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. At York I teach second year biochemistry and third year Molecular Biology.
What is your research about?
We study a class of proteins called La and La-related proteins that have important functions in gene expression. They are conserved from yeast to humans, so we use both yeast and human cells (grown in tissue culture) in my lab. We’re interested in understanding the mechanisms by which they contribute to gene expression, as well as how they can become disregulated in human disease.
What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
It’s great when you discover something exciting and unexpected. It’s a lot of fun to share that excitement with my trainees and with other scientists when we meet at conferences.
What have you found most challenging about your research?
There are lots of challenges. The science itself is challenging. By definition we are doing everything for the first time, or it wouldn’t be science. Constant grant writing for continued funding is challenging, too.
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
I did an honours undergraduate thesis at McGill University and loved it. I decided I would keep doing research until someone told me I had to stop. That hasn’t happened yet.
How has your research impacted the world?
Our work has helped the scientific community understand the strategies cells often use to control gene expression, as well as how they enforce “quality control” on the biological molecules they synthesise. Thanks to our work we better understand the specific biochemical reactions that happen inside cells and we hope this will someday translate into better understanding of several challenges to human health!
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
There’s a lot of interest right now in trying to understand how the La and La related proteins help cells respond to various types of stress, like starvation. It’s an exciting time for us.
What motivates you to do research?
The excitement of making a hypothesis as to how something works and then getting to actually go out and find the answer. It’s great sharing that experience with students.
Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment
Honestly, they are rare, but when they happen, usually my first reaction isn’t “Eureka!” but “What?”. I find it’s often the scientific results that first surprise you that end up being the most interesting. Persistence is key.