Highlights from Donnelly Centre's Annual Scientific Retreat

May 16, 2018
Jovana Drinjakovic

group retreat photodonnelly centre faculty and trainees in front of the queen's landing hotel in niagara-on-the-lake (Mikko Taipale).

On May 7, 2018, Donnelly Centre faculty and trainees came together in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a two-day retreat, which took place in Queen’s Landing, a hotel located by the town’s marina. Despite the gloomy weather forecast, the sun was shining and we were off to a good start!

The goal was to bring together researchers at all stages of their careers in an informal setting in which they can learn about each other’s science from across diverse areas of biomedicine and brainstorm ideas for future collaborative projects.

One hundred graduate students and postdoctoral fellows presented their work, 15 of whom gave research talks while the rest were poster presentations spread across two poster sessions. Topics ranged from uncovering fundamentals of genetics and cell biology to drug discovery targeting a variety of diseases: from autism, to parasitic infections to cancer.

conference roomThis year we had not one but two keynote speakers! Professor Thomas Nyström, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, gave the first keynote lecture about his research on the molecular basis of aging, which is thought to be driven by accumulation of damaged proteins in the cell. Using an elegant approach in yeast cells, developed by the lab, Nyström’s team uncovered previously unknown genes involved in abnormal protein accumulation with implications for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The second keynote speaker was Gordon Keller, Director of McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine and a professor in U of T's Department of Medical Biophysics. Keller’s talk covered some of his seminal research of working out how to mimic heart development in the dish in order to spur stem cells to form a variety of heart cell types for future application in regenerative medicine. The painstaking work has paid off and Keller is now trying to scale up the production of heart muscle cells, backed by BlueRock Therapeutics, a company he co-founded, so they can be used as transplant tissue for heart damage repair.

Keller was also a member on the science career development panel alongside our director and University Professor Brenda Andrews, Professor Philip Kim, of the Donnelly Centre, and Dorothea Maetzel, Senior Scientist at Northern Biologics, a biotechnology company co-founded by Professor Sachdev Sidhu, of the Donnelly Centre, which took place on the second day of the retreat.

Keller with postdocs“Anyone who’s enthusiastic and has passion for science has a good chance of succeeding in academia,” said Keller, who began his scientific career at the University of Saskatchewan after which he moved several times to Switzerland, Austria and the US, before returning to Canada ten years ago. Andrews urged trainees who wish to remain in academic research to embrace the changing environment and learn new tools as well as take the opportunity to travel to other countries and labs to expand their horizons. “Cultivate your network of mentors, it is always good to have recommendation letters from diverse people,” Andrews also said.

Maetzel, who joined Northern after a postdoc at the Whitehead Institute in Boston, MA, emphasized the importance of being a team player when working in industry. The panel agreed that while Toronto lags far behind Boston and San Francisco in terms of career opportunities in biotechnology, this is slowly changing.

Kim, who worked for McKinsey&Company consultancy group for two years between his PhD and postdoc, said that the experience allowed him to test the waters of the corporate world with all its pluses, such as salary, and minuses, including the work/life balance. He also said that it’s possible to return to research so long as the hiatus is not a long one.

After the gala dinner, Andrews presented the Donnelly Centre awards to outstanding students and postdocs, including the Cecil Yip Doctoral Research Awards, awarded to 10 students in their first year of graduate program who are pursuing highly collaborative research, Jennifer Dorrington Graduate Research Awards, awarded to three students in the Faculty of Medicine working in Donnelly Centre labs, Donnelly Centre Research Prize, awarded for the best doctoral thesis in the past year, and the Charles H. Best Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded annually to one postdoctoral fellow.

For pictures from the retreat—including some wild dancing moves from the party—please visit our Flickr gallery.

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