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About the Institute

Profile of Anath Lionel

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Anath Lionel

Anath Lionel

  • PhD student, Genetics & Genome Biology, SickKids;
  • Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am from India and I completed my undergraduate degree in bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras. I am currently finishing my PhD in Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto and my research training in Dr. Stephen Scherer’s lab in Genetics & Genome Biology at SickKids.    

2. What are you researching right now?
My thesis project focuses on the discovery of new genetic risk factors for psychiatric conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and ADHD using whole genome technologies, including microarrays and next generation sequencing. I’m also exploring the genetic overlap across different psychiatric disorders. Psychiatrists have seen some overlapping symptoms among different disorders and we think this could be explained by certain shared risk genes.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I’m going to say Gregor Mendel, who is widely regarded as the founder of genetics. He was an Austrian monk who conducted early genetics experiments using pea plants in his monastery garden. Through a combination of hard work, clear thinking and luck he uncovered many of the basic principles of genetics. More than 150 years later, many high school science text books still use Mendel’s work as an introduction to genetics.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
With respect to medical genomics, it’s definitely the sequencing of the human genome, which was completed for the first time 10 years ago. It greatly expanded the scope of medical genetics research by allowing scientists to look for risk factors across the entire genome rather than just focusing on genes of known function. This initial breakthrough and the subsequent advances in sequencing technology have been key catalysts for most genomics research over the last decade as well as advancing many other fields of bioscience. In terms of its importance, mapping the human genome has been compared to landing on the moon or splitting the atom. It has the potential down the road to be of even greater importance, especially because of its implications for human health.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Outside the lab I like to read, volunteer, play sports and travel. I’ve been to 12 countries and attending scientific conferences has been a great way of expanding that list.

I have volunteered at the SickKids Science Rendezvous event the past few years and I also volunteer at Toronto General Hospital and tutor high school math and science. I enjoy playing table tennis and softball and I was also a part of the U of T quizbowl team – which is like a team version of Jeopardy.

6. Why science?
My interest in genetics was sparked when I first encountered it in high school. It is really neat how complex things such as disease risk, forensics and the history of the human species can be better understood by the logical application of fundamental genetic principles. Medical genetics is also one of the most exciting areas of current scientific research thanks to rapid technological advances.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is a particularly great place for medical science because of how closely linked the clinical practice is with the research. There are so many clinician-scientists at the top of their game at SickKids and also top notch basic scientists who are working on problems very relevant to the clinic.

My supervisor Dr. Stephen Scherer has built very successful collaborations with many clinicians at SickKids – for example the Autism Research Unit. Through these collaborations, we are able to see the impact of discoveries that we make in the lab. We hope our genetic research will help clinicians diagnose kids earlier and provide earlier and more effective treatment.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Some topics that generate considerable debate in psychiatry include the classification and diagnoses of mental disorders and also the links between different disorders. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the most widely used clinical handbook for psychiatric diagnoses, was released earlier this year. This version has generated much controversy because of how it redefines certain conditions and the overlap between conditions. I think research findings from genetics and from other fields like brain-imaging can help clarify some of these issues.  

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine by Francis S. Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This book provides a great overview of how much impact new genetic research has had on clinical medicine. It gives examples of specific patients who have been helped and touches on some of the complexities. It also discusses how the field of genetics has even sparked advancements in business because of direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Research has its highs and lows and it is important to find a topic that motivates you to keep going when the inevitable obstacles arrive. As a trainee, it really helps to build relationships with effective mentors who can guide you during the training process.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
This building is a symbol of SickKids commitment to research. The Gilgan Centre will build on past and current success to create more research and learning opportunities. In our research in medical genomics, there are many large scale projects and we have people from a wide range of backgrounds working together. Currently we work with clinicians and scientists in different buildings but now we will be in the same place and this will help accelerate collaborations. There is also more space for new sequencing equipment which will allow us to expand our research. 

September 2013