Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Ronald Cohn

Photo of Ronald Cohn
Dr. Ronald Cohn

By: Anne Coffey

Dr. Ronald Cohn, MD, FACMG

  • Chief, Clinical and Metabolic Genetics
  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m originally from Germany where I went to medical school and started my residency in paediatrics. I then moved to Iowa City in the United States to do laboratory research in muscular dystrophy. Afterwards, I went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore where I did a combined training in paediatrics and genetics which was the first combined training of its kind. After I was done with the training, I joined the faculty at Hopkins. I became residency director for the genetics residency program and now I am here at SickKids. I have been at SickKids since September 2012.

2. What are you researching right now?
My laboratory is interested in how muscle mass is maintained in a lot of different disorders such as muscular dystrophies where muscle often gets replaced by fat and scar tissue. One of our main goals is to identify ways to either prevent the scars from forming in the first place or even trying to reverse that scar formation.

I’ve also done research on hibernating squirrels which are a very interesting species in that they go to sleep for six months and don’t eat and don’t drink and don’t move and don’t lose muscle mass – which is obviously different than all of us or even any other animal model. We studied this for a long time at Hopkins and we have just submitted a grant here to continue that research.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
That’s really difficult to answer. I’m going to give you two answers. First, I’ll say Albert Einstein because of his unique ability to combine science to real life. I use his quotes all the time. He probably has more memorable quotes than a hundred other scientists all together. One of my favorite quotes is: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Second – other than the scientists with whom I’ve worked with and who have mentored me like Kevin Campbell or Hal Dietz – it’s probably Eric Kandel who received the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking studies into signal transduction in the brain works. I’ve had the honour of meeting him and he is just such a fantastic, bright and engaging mind.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
It’s a difficult question because if you single out one scientific breakthrough then you unintentionally disregard many other important ones. That being said, I think probably one of the most significant ones is the discovery of DNA. However, if you ask me this same question in a year or two from now I will probably answer differently and mention a new technology which is just surfacing to the horizon called CRISPR. This technology is going to change the landscape of how we can edit our genome and it will have long-lasting impact on how we study model organisms. As well, it will provide new insights and opportunities into gene editing for therapies. I anticipate that the scientists, who discovered this will get a Nobel Prize within the next five years.  

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
It’s my family. I have three wonderful children and a wonderful wife. Given that we are all busy with school and with work, spending time together as a family is truly one of the most important things to me. Another major interest I have is cooking. One day when I have a lot of time I may enter the enterprise of opening a restaurant – but I have to learn more by then! I cook as a hobby and when I cook I try all sorts of different things ... I usually look at recipes and then I modify them according to the taste of myself and my family. A chef I admire is Julia Childs. I think her creativity with cooking is outstanding.

6. Why science?
I always wanted to be a doctor, as long as I can think back. I had a grandfather who was an old type of family medicine practitioner. I think he had an EKG apparatus in his office and that was it. The way that you get into medical school in Germany is either you are a very good student in school or you get an interview at a university. It’s very different than in Canada or the United States. I was selected for an interview at the University of Duesseldorf where I was living in Germany. There was a panel of people who asked me all sorts of questions and they asked about my interest in science and I said, “You know, I just want to be a doctor and take care of patients, I have no interest in being in a laboratory.” And that was the reason that I didn’t get into medical school initially.

Then, when I did get into medical school, I did my thesis work on a clinical-based science project evaluating all sorts of parameters of children who had mitochondrial disease. All of a sudden I discovered this urge to find out why these things were happening and not just correlate clinical data. That’s when I really discovered my love for science.

7. Why SickKids?
Two years ago I got an email from the chairman of paediatrics asking me whether I would be interested in exploring the position of chief of genetics here. If a place like SickKids with the kind of opportunities and reputation knocks at your door you have to at least listen. When I came here I realized what enormous opportunities I potentially have to move genetic medicine to the level of changing the way we provide clinical care, not for just patients with a primary genetic disorder but patients all over SickKids, I decided it was the right move.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I think the most controversial question is how to move individualized medicine and the knowledge from genomic sequencing into clinical care. I think everyone agrees that it has to happen, but I think there’s hesitance and controversy around it. Some people even want to prevent it. I think that geneticists have to redefine themselves a little bit as we move forward and that’s always associated with controversy. However, I think it will be resolved and that’s one of the reasons that I came to SickKids – to help solve it.

9. What are you reading right now?
It’s probably embarrassing – but I’m not a big reader. If I want to read something for pleasure, I open a cookbook and just go through it. There are many people who I work with who are avid readers – and I admire them. I wish I could be, too, and I wonder whether I will read more as I get older. I don’t know.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
There are two things. First, you have to be passionate about a certain topic or question you’d like to answer; and second, you have to find the right mentor who helps you get on a path to answer this question. It is completely unnecessary to know how to do science technically or even understand science in the beginning. You just have to be passionate about a question. If there is something which captures you, then you go for it. I’m in this field out of a personal reason. When I was a medical student, my best friend had a son that was born with a severe genetic disorder.  Back then we thought he had a mitochondrial myopathy. I had no idea what that was but I went to my thesis advisor and said, I want to study this. At present, we have been unable to identify a specific diagnosis and tailored treatment – resulting in the inability to ever pass the developmental stage of a newborn. This was a seminal event in my life that started my career as a geneticist and scientist.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
The environment of the new building is not just beautiful and breathtakingly pretty, it really does create a spark and a sense that there is a community of scientists around. The main mission of the Peter Gilgan Centre is to bring people together ... and the best ideas and the best discussions I have ever had, were when I was sitting down and talking science with others. And it doesn’t have to be your scientific area – just listening to other people how they think about a question, I would say at least 80 per cent of the time, sparks some idea for your own science and vice versa. And I do think that that’s happening – I can see it already happening.

December 2013

Scientific profile »»