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About the Institute

Profile of Calvin Mok

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Calvin Mok

By: Karley Ura

Calvin Mok

  • PhD Candidate, Genetics and Genome Biology
  • Graduate Student, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)

1. Where are you from? /Where did you study?
I grew up in Kitchener and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in computer science with a bioinformatics specialization. When I finished my undergraduate I came to Toronto to start my masters and eventually I reclassified and now I’m doing my PhD.

2. What are you researching right now?
I’m working on a very rare disease called Bardet-Biedl Syndrome. It’s a congenital childhood disorder, which usually presents with vision loss, obesity, digital anomalies, and cystic kidneys amongst other symptoms. Children around the ages of three or four start to become affected by vision loss and by the second decade of their life, they are usually completely or legally blind. For the past six years, I have been working with a very small worm called Caenorhabditis elegans to try and understand how the disease progresses, what the proteins of the syndrome do, what pathways cause the feature anomalies, and why these children develop certain features; because they aren’t born blind.

3. Who is your all time favourite scientist, and why?
I had to think hard about this. I was torn between a few scientists, but I would have to say it’s Gregor Mendel. He is the father of genetics and his work is the basis of what we understand in genetics today. He was basically a monk who studied pea plants and how they had different traits. He spent his time crossing them and looking to see what happened. He tried to understand “genetics” at a very basic level – before we even knew what genetics was. I always thought I wanted to be an engineer until one day, in grade 11 biology, we learned about genetics and Gregor Mendel and it just blew my mind.

4. In your opinion, what is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
This one was hard to decide on too, but I’m going to go with Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution. He collected evidence about finches and isolated populations of animals and noticed the differences. He put together a conclusion which opened the door to how we’re related to other animals. The Theory of Evolution is the basis of my research, without it I wouldn’t be able to study a worm to understand a human disease.

5. What are your interests outside of the lab?
For the past few years, I’ve had the privilege to be the director of a youth mentorship program in Parkdale. Also, this may sound a little weird, but my friends would say I have an affinity for taking pictures of oranges. I often find myself alone on conferences or when I’m travelling, so I go around the city and take pictures of an orange in different locations to prove I’ve been there. I also recently got engaged, so we are busy planning the wedding, which is in August.

6. Why science?
When you’re in the lab, and it’s late at night and no one’s around and all of a sudden you get a result, you find out something new. In that moment you are the only person to know that result. It’s a secret of the universe and it’s all yours until you email your boss. During the fraction of time you keep it to yourself, it’s like, if you disappear, no one will ever know, presumably. It’s exciting.

At the same time, I love working for Dr. Elise Héon and Dr. Mei Zhen. Discovering things and knowing that later on it can be applied to patients is a meaningful bonus. I like how the science we work on could be translated to helping other people.

7. Why SickKids?
Well Elise (Dr. Héon) is here. She’s a really great mentor and what I'm learning from her made me want to be part of the graduate program. SickKids is really a great institute, especially with the opportunity for collaboration. Everyone is very close knit.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Because the disease is so complex, there is this one topic: oligogenic inheritance that causes controversy. In most simple diseases one gene will have one or two mutations and that causes the disease. With Bardet-Biedl Syndrome (BBS), we expect two mutations in a single gene but there are rare cases where patients will have three mutations. For example, there may be the same two changes in one gene within a pair of siblings. One sibling won’t have any symptoms of the disease and the other sibling will. We are finding that a third mutation in another BBS gene that is responsible for making one sibling sick. The sibling without the disease is missing this third mutation, but there has only been one group so far showing that this is happening in BBS. So the question is, does this really exist, and how does that affect how the disease presents. Not every patient presents as obese, not everyone has kidney anomalies, not everyone goes blind and so what are the complex genetic factors that prevent this or help stop this from happening. That’s what my research is focused on; what we call modifiers of the disease. How are the different things related to the disease modifying how it presents, what is going on in the background?

9. What are you reading?
I am reading three books. My parents gave me the Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway so I have started that. On my phone I am reading A Tale of Two Cities and because I’m getting married, I’m reading The Everything Guide to Grooms.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering going into a career in research, what would it be?
Do what you love. Science at times can be very trying, things work, things don’t work, and it can be a very long time before something great works out. Science is a labour of love that you nurture. If you concentrate on persevering, if you love the topic, you’ll love science. Don’t let the negative take over.

11. What does the tower mean to you?
Right now the different departments are spread out. When we have one place where all the science is happening, depending on how they structure it, it can turn into a community where there are weekly events people can go to hear about the science going on in other labs from all facets of science. The tower will provide a place where inspiration is fostered, where you will be able to benefit from this knowledge all around you. The tower will be that place for everyone.

March 2011