Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Curtis Boswell

Photo of Curtis Boswell
Curtis Boswell

By: Joseph Sintzel

Curtis Boswell

  • Graduate Student

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from a small town called Carlisle, just north of Burlington, Ontario. It’s a tiny town; it’s got four corners, surrounded by lots of farms and is in the middle of the country. I did my undergrad degree at Queen’s University and then came to SickKids for my PhD. I’m currently completing my PhD at SickKids with the University of Toronto in Dr. Brian Ciruna’s lab.   

2. What are you researching right now?
Our lab is interested in the mechanisms of how the spine develops during embryonic development and grows into later stages of life. My research focus is on what happens when spine development goes awry and leads to deformities like scoliosis, where the spine is curved. We use zebrafish – little tiny aquarium fish that share many similar developmental programs to humans – to model diseases like scoliosis and then try to figure out why these animals are getting curved spines. We then try to treat them and translate what we learned back to humans. 

Zebrafish are a great model system because they’re easy to genetically modify and their embryos are completely transparent which is great for microscopy. You can grow them just in a plate of water, unlike human cells which must be grown in special media. Zebrafish are a particularly great model organism to study this disease because their spines are naturally susceptible to developing spinal curves because of the biomechanical loads on their spines from swimming.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Barry Marshall is an Australian scientist who I think has an amazing story of perseverance in his discoveries. He won a Nobel Prize years ago for the discovery that bacterium called Heliobacter pylori are the cause of stomach ulcers. He hypothesized that these bacteria were causing stomach ulcers and the scientific community shunned him. At the time, they didn’t think it was true because the stomach is too acidic to hold bacteria and there were bodies of evidence that suggested that stress and diet could contribute to the formation of stomach ulcers, but Barry still believed it was attributed to these bacteria. Because the scientific community doubted him at the time, he decided to test it out on himself. He drank a culture of this bacteria and in a short amount of time, he got severe stomach ulcers. Everyone believed him after this and he won a Nobel Prize. This taught me that even if you are doubted, if you believe it and the data suggests that it’s true, then just go with it.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Recent breakthroughs in genome editing technology such as the CRISPR/Cas9 system are most certainly the most impactful scientific breakthroughs within the past decade.  I was fortunate enough to start my PhD when CRISPR/Cas9 technology had become mainstream enough to be used by anyone in a lab. After doing some experiments with these reagents, I could really appreciate how it was going to cause a paradigm shift in the way that we approach our experiments in the lab and how we can now answer major biological questions that we couldn’t dream of doing before. This technology is completely transformative and will have huge implications in treating patients with genetic diseases, infections and cancer.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I love travelling and photography. I also like eating and coffee. All four of those things intermingle quite nicely. Different places have different coffees and good food so I enjoy exploring these things together!  

6. Why science?
I think it was probably a combination of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Magic School Bus. I loved watching those shows as a kid as well as the movies. I always knew that I wanted to grow up and build a shrink ray or a bus that could travel through time. I always loved science in school; I thought it was way cooler than math or English. I stayed on the track of liking science and ended up here.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was applying for grad school after my undergrad, I applied to a couple programs but I was most interested in getting into the Molecular Genetics Program at U of T because of the outstanding resources and the opportunity for scientific collaboration in the Toronto community. I also loved the incredible science being done at U of T, and at SickKids. My current research uses zebrafish and there are very few zebrafish research labs in Canada, so it’s been an amazing opportunity to study cool diseases and study different models that I wasn’t exposed to during my undergrad. At SickKids we have one of the largest zebrafish facilities in Canada and it has given me a great opportunity to use a model I was interested in, as well as having access to all the other amazing resources that we have here!

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The number one question in terms of scoliosis research in humans is what genes are responsible for causing scoliosis? For some other diseases, we have been able to definitively identify the gene responsible for causing the disorder. For example, with cystic fibrosis, we know that if you have a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, you are highly likely to have cystic fibrosis. For scoliosis and other diseases with polygenic traits, there’s very little evidence to suggest that a single gene causes the disease. I think in scoliosis research as well as other diseases with unknown genetic causes, there’s a big push right now to try to unravel the genetics of why humans get these diseases and how we can take what we’ve learned from various models of disease and translate it back to patients.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book by James Watson. He’s a scientist, who with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA. In this book called The Double Helix, he recalls the time where they were discovering the structure of DNA. What science was like back then and how it was very theoretical and they just wrote on scraps of paper, living in these awful conditions while they were studying at these amazing universities in the UK. It’s an eye-opening book about what scientific discovery was like back in their era.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
My biggest piece of advice for a budding researcher would be to just roll with the punches. Science is a demanding career where there is a large amount failure. If you can get through that, the successes are that much more exciting. To me, science is just like big kids Lego. You’re just assembling things, playing with genes and engineering organisms, so it is a fun and rewarding experience when it works.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I’ve been in this building since it first opened, so it’s kind of been my second home since I’ve moved to Toronto and started my PhD. The building does mean a lot to me and I’m thankful I get to be a part of watching it through all of its growth within the past four years. I greatly enjoy the research community here and all the resources available to me, and it’s been a fantastic place to work.  

May 2017