Profile of Benjamin Lant
By: Justin Faiola
Dr. Benjamin Lant, PhD
- Postdoctoral Fellow
1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in Calgary, but I have lived across Canada and in England. I studied at Carleton University in Ottawa where I did my PhD under Dr. Ken Storey. My research focused on how certain animals can survive during extreme environmental conditions. Most of my work concentrated on anoxia tolerance, the ability to survive for long periods of time without oxygen, in a species of North American crayfish. The lab studies how many animals regulate periods of stasis, hibernation for example, by severely dropping their metabolic rate. I learned a lot during my time in the Storey Lab and picked up the basics in biochemistry, molecular biology and experimental failure.
2. What are you researching right now?
I currently work in Dr. Brent Derry’s lab where our research is focused on the Cerebral Cavernous Malformation (CCM) disease. CCM is a brain disease which affects around 1 in 500 people and is based on a mutation in one of three CCM genes. Mutations can cause seizures or strokes in those affected. Our lab uses a nematode worm (C. elegans) model to perform rapid genetic experiments that show us how the gene typically functions. We are then able to discover the signalling network and begin assessing how these mutations physically affect the developing brain. In collaboration with labs at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, we can assess our genetic findings in human cells.
3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I admire the work of Sydney Brenner; the godfather of nematode genetics. Brenner played a vital role in establishing nematode worms, which he referred to as “nature’s gift to science”, as a model organism for genetic research. Brenner and his colleagues made a worm that is only about a millimetere in length one of the pre-eminent tools for genetics research. These worms were the first multicellular organism to have their genome sequenced and are the only animal to have all of their neural connections completely mapped. These worms have also led the way in aging, cell death and gene silencing research. Alongside Robert Horvitz and John Sulston, Brenner won the Nobel Prize in 2002 and all three are truly scientific pioneers. Their research stands the test of time as even now we are referencing papers that they published in the 1970s.
4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I think this is a very difficult question because saying a single scientific breakthrough is the most important forces you to leave out so many worthy achievements. So, I think I am going to take the Utilitarian approach and pick the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Groundbreaking science often results from fortunate observation and Fleming’s discovery of a strain of mold that could kill bacteria turned out to be quite useful! Though there are reports of ancient Egyptians using mouldy bread to treat wounds as well as contemporaries of Fleming conducting parallel research, it was Fleming’s perseverance in isolating Pennicillium notatum and extracting penicillin that truly led to the discovery of modern antibiotics.
5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I’m interested in soccer, and have supported Arsenal FC from a young age. My grandfather is also a long-time Arsenal supporter, and I find it helps accustom us to disappointment. I play soccer in a city league as well.
I’m also interested in music and throughout the course of my research career, I’ve been lucky enough to be in labs that have people who share this same passion. I’m also fortunate to be living in a city like Toronto that is great place to be if you love art and music.
6. Why science?
When I was in my last year of high school, I considered applying to either an English or Fine Arts program in university. However, popular science articles got the better of me and I applied to the biology and biotechnology program. Both of my parents also come from science backgrounds, so I often visited their labs growing up, which must have instilled a sense of scientific curiosity in me from a young age.
For me, science is about discovery and having an impact on the wider world. I enjoy being in a lab setting and whenever I see a great lecture, I’m reminded that there is still an element of storytelling in research.
7. Why SickKids?
Coming to SickKids was an opportunity for me to join one of the best research communities in the world. It’s a place that allows you to grow and share your research in a dynamic environment that fosters collaboration and stresses the need for translational research. There is also a tremendous amount of pride in working here. The public holds SickKids in the highest regard which really inspires me to contribute to our community.
8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Our field (CCM research) is relatively new so there are many big questions remaining. When you attend the annual meeting for our field, you are able to see the full spectrum of CCM research from the ground level where research is taking place, to the decisions clinicians are making day to day. From the research standpoint the issues can be as broad as “How are these complexes of proteins communicating?”, while the clinical community asks “how can we detect a disease that is largely asymptomatic?”
9. What are you reading right now?
I recently read an interesting biography of the country musician Hank Williams that focused on poverty, addiction and the crippling effects of fame. I then followed this with a much lighter novel called There but for the by Ali Smith. It is about a man who leaves a dinner party mid-way through and locks himself in one of his host’s rooms indefinitely. The novel covers memory and how it connects people as well as how it creates a form of history. It’s also about time, language and truth. So it’s about a lot of big concepts and it was very good.
10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Start early and get as much experience as you can, be it through summer programs or volunteering in labs. Research requires willpower, discipline and patience and developing these skills in the lab takes time. You need to be happy with immersing yourself in your field and be prepared to dedicate a lot of mental energy to your work. Learn as many techniques as you can and find out if you’re comfortable in a lab setting because that’s where you’re going to be for a long time!
11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
The PGCRL allows the SickKids research community to expand on its already positive approach to collaboration. The floors are set so that departments can focus on common research goals and interdisciplinary collaboration. The need for translational research is more important than ever and the shared spaces of the PGCRL and building-wide events help foster an attitude that SickKids is a community.