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About the Institute

Profile of Monica Justice

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Dr. Monica Justice

By: Justin Faiola

Dr. Monica Justice, PhD

  • Program Head and Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Professor, Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in rural Western Kansas, USA. I originally wanted to be a veterinarian but I went to school to become a medical technologist instead. After I worked as a med tech for several years, I decided to go back to graduate school at Kansas State University where I received my PhD in developmental genetics. Once I received my PhD, I went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Maryland.

During my PhD I conducted my research on mouse models and I had the opportunity to try a lot of new research techniques. My PhD mentor really helped me think outside the box.

When I went to the NCI, I wanted to explore and get more experience in molecular biology which was, at the time, a very new avenue for mouse genetics. I began studying in a lab headed by Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins that focused on studying leukemia in mice. This was a great place to do a postdoc because the NCI was at the forefront of research and was very progressive and forward thinking.

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now my research is focusing on epigenetics. Epigenetics has to do with the modification of DNA and how this modification affects transcription and downstream events. I currently have two main projects.

The first is looking at acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and we are focusing on what causes the tumour (tumour initiation). I am also looking into alternative methods of treatment for ALL.  Although childhood leukemias are believed to have a high survival rate, there are many patients who develop a different type of tumour after being in remission for years, or who have some emotional or growth response to the chemotherapeutic agents they once received. As a result, I am looking at alternative, less-toxic treatments that would be just as effective and that focus around my genetics research. To me, we are not finished until every patient survives and has a good quality of life.

The other project focuses on a disorder called Rett syndrome – a disease caused by mutations in a gene that lies on the X chromosome and occurs in about one in 10,000 girls. Rett syndrome is very devastating for families because little girls develop normally for a period of time before starting to exhibit a developmental regression. These girls will eventually stop talking, lose basic motor skills and withdraw from their families. Some may require very expensive health care for the remainder of their lives. Boys with mutations in the same gene will usually die at birth because they only have one X chromosome, whereas girls have a second, unaffected X chromosome that is able to slow down the disease, allowing girls to survive much longer than boys. Since the mutation in the gene is caused by an epigenetic factor, we have taken a genetic approach to find out what’s important in the pathology. This will help us find therapeutic ways to try and slow down the developmental regression to improve the quality of life for these young girls.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
The person I was fascinated the most with was Barbara McClintock. Barbara McClintock discovered mobile genetic elements in corn while she was working at the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Missouri and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.  She was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine but her work went unrecognized for a very long time. In fact, her work was belittled by her colleagues for many years to the point where her findings almost had to be rediscovered!

During my time at Kansas State University I read many of McClintock’s original reports because the library had archived many of the Missouri experiment station’s files and documents. It was very interesting to read her work because she was describing findings before the science community knew much about molecular biology or the functions of DNA or chromatin. She has always been someone I looked up to because she was a pioneer for women in a predominately male field of genetics. When I was a graduate student, I would write to her to try and get her to come to lecture at Kansas State. She didn’t come because of her age at the time, but she would always write me back which was really sweet of her!

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Some of my colleagues say there has yet to be a great scientific discovery made but I beg to differ. To me, the most important scientific breakthrough is the discovery of the basis for the DNA code. I would say this has advanced science faster than anything else to date. This discovery opened doors to ideas and other findings that were unimaginable to old-time geneticists. The way we approach science today is just amazing now that we have multiple organisms’ genomes sequenced. Everything is so different and we are able to carry out research and experiments that we couldn’t do 10, let alone 20 years ago. I strongly believe that this wave of scientific advancement all started with the discovery of the structure of DNA and its components in 1953.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I was originally a music major in college; however, I switched out of my music major to biology, knowing I would still be able to enjoy music and play the piano as a hobby. My husband is a musician and all of our children sing so my passion for music is still alive and well today. We even managed to bring a piano up to Toronto from the U.S. so I can still play in my free time!

I also love to cook. I have a saying that all good molecular biologists are also good cooks. My family thinks it’s hilarious that I will go home and cook after a hard day of work but for me, cooking is very therapeutic. I use cooking to relax and when I get into my kitchen, I feel like I’m in a different world. I enjoy cooking all types of food, from French and Italian to American gourmet and Indian. I also can cook vegetarian because my daughter was a vegetarian for a long time and I wanted to make sure she was eating healthy foods.

I love eating just as much as I love cooking so moving to Toronto has been a fantastic experience. We’ve only been here a short while but we have already tried amazing Thai, Jamaican, Italian, French and Mexican restaurants. My husband and I love the dining experience and atmosphere of Toronto restaurants—they are cozy but not overwhelming and noisy.

My husband and I also enjoy outdoor activities. We have already been skiing and we love the fact that there are ski resorts less than an hour away from our house. If we wanted to go skiing when we lived in the US, we would have to take a week long ski trip somewhere so the convenience here is great!

6. Why science?
My grandfather was a veterinarian, my uncle was a physician and my aunt was the head of the public health department in the state of Nevada. Our whole family just thought in terms of medicine and health so being surrounded by these people definitely influenced me to pursue science.

Another reason why I decided to get into science is because I have always been very good at math and biology. When I first took my SATs before applying to college, I scored very well in the areas that focused on math and science. Despite this, I still wanted to pursue music so I initially started college as a music major. But then I thought to myself, “you’re never going to make enough money to survive,” because I knew I wasn’t good enough to be a performer, and I didn’t want to be a high school music teacher. All my friends and family kept telling me that I should pursue science so in the end, I decided to listen and make the switch. I think it was the right choice because I realized my real gift was in science as I got further into my career.

7. Why SickKids?
I must say, when I was first asked to come and interview I would never have thought I would move to Canada. My husband and I have children, grandchildren and other family in the US and that definitely has a lot to do with where we decide to live. But, I was looking for a leadership position and SickKids offered the perfect role. The type of research, with its focus on paediatric health and the institute as a whole presented an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.  And in the end, moving to Canada wasn’t that intimidating. I have been coming to Toronto for 25 years for science meetings so I have been very exposed to the medical community and to the University of Toronto as well. I even served on several external PhD examining committees, so all these factors made the idea of moving more approachable.

8. What are you reading right now?
I love to read but since I became a scientist, I have very little time for leisure reading. Usually I pick up a book when I take a trip so the last book I finished was by Jody Picoult called The Story Teller. It’s about a granddaughter of a holocaust survivor meeting a Nazi SS officer in his old age. It is very well written. Other writers I like are Elizabeth George, and Philippa Gregory, mystery and historical fiction writers. I love George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I have read all of the books in the series except for the last book because I want to catch up on the television show first. I like to read the books and then go back and watch the series because it is amazing to see what you imagined as you read the books come alive in the show.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I would say you need to have commitment, motivation, patience and courage. Pursuing a research career isn’t easy; in fact you cannot expect any career to be easy. You have to work hard, stick with it and push through the hard times. If you are passionate about your career and dedicated to your work, you will succeed.

10. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
The building itself, along with having all of these research programs together under one roof was a major factor for me coming to SickKids. Research is never done in a vacuum; you can be the smartest person in the world but it takes many different ideas coming together in order to take the next big step in science. Having this group of outstanding researchers, all in the same building where we are encouraged to interact and collaborate, is something very special. So to me, the PGCRL is a model for how research should be carried out. The type of research, design of the building and its place within the SickKids community is important not only for the type of research I do, but because this type of infrastructure fosters endless collaboration. The building infrastructure and beauty doesn’t hurt recruitment, either!

May 2014

Scientific profile