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About the Institute

Profile of Norman Rosenblum

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Dr. Norman Rosenblum

By: Sylvia Dick

Dr. Norman Rosenblum, MD

  • Senior Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology
  • Staff Nephrologist
  • Professor and Associate Dean, University of Toronto, Physician Scientist Training
    Departments. of Paediatrics, Physiology, Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology
  • Canada Research Chair, Developmental Nephrology

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and raised in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. I completed my undergraduate degree in science at Dalhousie University and remained there for medical school. I chose internal medicine and paediatrics as my specializations. I received clinical training in paediatric nephrology at the Boston Children’s Hospital. From there I went just down the street to Harvard Medical School for a post-doctoral fellowship in cell and molecular biology.

2. What are you researching right now?
When I arrived here 19 years ago, I established a lab that studies kidney development and this continues to be my focus. The approach we’ve taken is to seek better understanding of the structure of the kidney and how molecular signals affect its formation.

The kidney consists of many different types of cells with very specialized functions. These cells are organized in a highly patterned, three dimensional framework which is critical to the function of the kidney. It really is a complex organ, performing many different tasks including filtering and reabsorbing different chemicals in precise amounts. The kidney has a geographical set up where very intricate physiology can be executed. It has many zones. We want to better understand this set up and how molecular signals affect kidney formation.

We are focused on these questions because the major cause of kidney failure in children and youth is malformation of the kidney. We know relatively little about how these malformations occur. Before we can treat these malformations we have to understand the very specific types of cells and the context in which they work. With this information we can aim to retrieve the functions that may have been lost in the development of the malformation.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
My favourite scientist is Charles Darwin with Albert Einstein as a very close runner up. What I love about Darwin is his curiosity as well as his determination to find and draw links between different kinds of evidence. He was able to move a body of evidence forward while at the same time remaining open to developing his theory. He was a curious and careful data gatherer and was really quite worried about his results. He hesitated a long time before publishing them because he didn’t have the confidence at first to put his research out into the public realm.

This is a dilemma that I identify with and I think all of scientists do at some point. Scientists are excited to share their findings but are also aware that there is still so much unknown.
This must have been particularly acute at Darwin’s time because the pace of scientific progress was unlike the pace of anything else in the modern age. He knew he was going to ruffle some feathers and he had major worries about that. Many scientists today live with those worries too.

Darwin’s story is fascinating and the impact he had has been tremendous. He was a remarkable individual and yet is easy to identify with –even today.

4. What scientific breakthrough most influenced your work and why?
I remember hearing a lecture by Oliver Smithies on the ability to isolate and culture embryonic stem cells, and then manipulate them genetically. That day I thought to myself, I’m never going to be the same again, I can’t believe what I’m listening to.

Everything I do now is based on those ideas. The body of knowledge on stem cells is the absolute basis for my ability to do what I do and to think the way I think.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I call myself an addicted cellist because I love it so much and am very active in playing. I’ve been learning to play since the age of 14 and it’s part of my own DNA. The sound of the cello is the closest to the human voice in its range and it is able to transmit a huge range of emotions. I find it an incredible vehicle for expression. My favourite piece is The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. It was the first piece I played for the woman I was going to marry. We have been married for 33 years and I still play it for her today.

6. Why science?
The fact that there is so much we still do not know is what drew me to science. The field caters to a part of my personality that wants to know how things work. As a doctor the unknown is also frustrating to me because I want to be able to do more for my patients.

In my training I was very lucky that I was exposed to an environment that treasured innovation and to people who were making important and impactful discoveries. When I completed my post-doctoral fellowship I found that my personality, my frustration, and my ethos came together and I knew what I had to do. I was on a platform to re-engage with science in order to serve what I care about most. I am inspired by my experience in medicine to work hard in the lab.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is really an outstanding place in the world. I’ve travelled a lot and have seen the other leading hospitals we are compared to. I am here for two main reasons. Firstly, this hospital is an outstanding clinical institution. Secondly, the research environment is spectacular. It is deep and also broad. The work produced here is valued – it’s not peripheral to the institution, it is part of the hospital’s very identity.

I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program and it has been critical to my success. I have terrific colleagues and trainees and my job as a clinician-scientist has been really supported. The bar of excellence here is high and we are all driven to achieve and at the same time the environment is very collegial. It is very rare to find such a remarkable place.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The most controversial question is whether or not there are cells in the kidney that can be activated to renew damaged or malformed kidney tissue. There is a theory that in the face of injury, stem cells can be reactivated to populate normal kidney structures. Some say there is enough evidence to prove this, others say there is not enough.

9. What are you reading right now?
I enjoy biographies and learning about interesting people. Right now I’m reading Rostropovich by Elizabeth Wilson. He was probably the greatest cellist of the 20th century and he influenced the cello repertoire in a way no one has ever done. He was also an incredible humanitarian. When I hear him on the radio, I can almost always tell it is him playing – it’s not just technique, there is something deeply penetrant about his playing. He could create a quality of sound and interpretation of music that is just beyond what anyone else really does. It was clear that his understanding of music was very advanced and his intelligence was both emotional and technical. His work has influenced and inspired many other composers.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I am very involved in the education and career development of clinician-scientists, particularly through the Child Health Clinician Scientist Program (CCHCSP), which I was honoured to lead until this year. This is the advice I would give trainees: You have to enjoy the quest. You also have to know about yourself – that’s really important. Be sure that you are really doing it because it satisfies your internal need for questioning and finding new things. Like many careers, there are going to be steps along the way that are difficult or frustrating. You may feel you are not getting ahead, or that your ideas or data are not being accepted in the world of peer-review. You have to be sure you want it. You have to be curious and open to many different ways of looking at things.

Also, be persistent and tough-skinned. If you have all or most of these traits, then get ready to enjoy it – because it is great, it’s fantastic.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It is a terrific thing to have. What I am most excited about is the cohesion which will take place in the new tower by having all the other disciplines close by. In this age multi-disciplinary teams are very important in thinking about scientific problems and the Centre will be a real bonus for SickKids. I’m excited about it.

December 2012

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