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About the Institute

Profile of Janet Rossant

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Dr. Janet Rossant

By: Anne Coffey

Dr. Janet Rossant, PhD, FRS, FRSC

  • Chief of Research, Research Institute
  • Senior Scientist, Developmental & Stem Cell Biology
  • Professor, Departments of Molecular Genetics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in the U.K. and I studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

2. What are you researching right now?
My research is focused on early development. I’m interested in how an egg develops into an organism. In particular, we focus on the first decisions that an embryo makes which, in a mouse or in a human, is how to produce the cells that make the placenta versus the cells that make the baby. I’ve been interested in that problem for a very long time. Every 10 years or so we come back to this same problem with new tools and ask new questions. Right now we think we understand the signaling pathways and the gene control mechanisms that make that decision. That’s important for understanding basic developmental biology and it’s also important because the formation of the placenta is one of the things that frequently go wrong in human pregnancies, so we’re also getting insights into pregnancy disorders. When we look at the cells that make the embryo we are exploring stem cell biology because these are the source of pluripotent stem cells.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
It has to be Charles Darwin. Evolution really underlies everything that we do. You think about how DNA encodes information, how information is played out  but then over time natural selection changes and modifies organisms to end up with the amazing diversity of creatures in the world today. The concept of natural selection acting on genetic material is fundamental to all of biology.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
That’s tough one. Saying what I just said, I think it is breaking the genetic code. The DNA structure was of course worked out by Watson and Crick and that structure made it clear that the genetic information must be encoded somehow in the sequence of the bases, TCAG. Then Crick and Brenner showed that it was a simple triple code – three bases encoding one amino acid; a form of digital information in many ways. It is a very elegant solution. It couldn’t have been designed better and yet it wasn’t designed, it arose by evolution.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like to cook. I used to run but my back won’t let me run anymore, but I like to walk and hike. I have a garden where I do what I call ‘binge-gardening’ – meaning that when I have time I have a ‘binge of gardening’ and try to keep the garden looking at least reasonable.  

6. Why science?
When I was in high school I had a really good science teacher – which I think is a fairly common finding. I was interested in lots of things, I was studying English and history as well as science However, it was really science and the process of discovery, the process of using science to find out new things about the world that really appealed to me and that’s what got me going down this path. 

Then when I went to Oxford, I studied zoology and I was taught by Sir John Gurdon who won the Nobel Prize in 2012. He really was the person who inspired me to go into developmental biology. He was working on cloning frogs and he gave these amazing lectures which pointed out that the DNA was the same in all the cells and yet different cells read it out in different ways. How does that happen? That’s a really fundamental question and that underlies everything most developmental biologists do.

Obviously many people have been mentors at different stages during my career, but that was the key event that moved me to what I’m doing today. I have been working on mouse development ever since I was a graduate student.

7. Why SickKids?
I joined SickKids in 2005. Before that, I was 20 years a scientist at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, now the The Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai, working on developmental biology but collaborating with a lot with people across Toronto, including at SickKids. It was the opportunity to join SickKids as the Chief of Research that caused me to cross the street. It may only be across the street, but I’ve met new people and my science has moved in new directions. So it’s been fun and it’s been great to be able to contribute in a leadership role to this amazing organization.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The whole stem cell field has tended to be rather controversial particularly with human embryonic stem cells. I feel that most of that controversy is dying away as we start to understand better that we can derive stem cells from many different sources and not just from human embryos. The next controversy is really around the use of stem cells and what we call stem cell tourism. We are making good advances in stem cell biology and taking them towards regenerative medicine and treating people, but there are lots of challenges along the way. For example, there are still unscrupulous clinics worldwide that are claiming to be able to treat people with stem cells without any backup from science or any clinical trials. As scientists we need to make sure that patients and their families get the best information and get the best treatments.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Brave Genius by Sean B. Carroll. It’s about Jacques Monod who was one of the founders of molecular biology and was also in the French resistance during the war. It’s really about the Nazi occupation of France with a little bit of scientific biography built in. Carroll is a biologist but he’s also a good communicator. It’s a really good book – I recommend it to the Research Institute.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
What I usually say, and I really do believe, is that if you are undertaking research find a question that you are interested in and follow your interests and your passion.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
As a researcher, it’s a fantastic place in which to undertake research. It’s great to be in a state of the art building with beautiful interaction spaces where we can meet, intermingle and hopefully drive research in new directions. As the Chief of Research, it’s been the biggest challenge for me during the last few years and it is great to see it come to fruition.

December 2013

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