Facebook Pixel Code
Banner image
About the Institute

Profile of Stephen Scherer

Researcher photo
Dr. Stephen Scherer

Dr. Stephen Scherer, PhD, FRSC

  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Genome Biology
  • Director, The Centre for Applied Genomics
  • Co-Director, the Centre for Genetic Medicine
  • Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics
  • Director, McLaughlin Centre
  • Glaxo-Smith-Kline Chair in Genetics and Genomics

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am originally from Windsor, Ontario. I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo and I did my Master’s and my PhD at the University of Toronto.

2. What are you researching right now?
Generally, my laboratory studies the structure and function of the human genome and more specifically, we study the genetics of autism. Since autism is largely a genetic disorder, these two larger ventures complement each other quite nicely. To understand autism, we need to understand the basic principles of genetics, in particular, types of genetic variations. We identified a previously unknown form of genetic variation (copy number variation) and subsequently we found that type of variation is found in autism, hence the need to understand the fundamentals of genetic principles to understand the genetics of autism itself.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
My all-time favourite scientist is Charles Darwin.  He was the most influential thinker in scientific history and his ideas changed the world. Most importantly, he was very patient. He made his observations in his twenties and he essentially kept them secret for some 30 years to make sure he had them right before he published them. He was very persistent and patient – the ultimate scientist!

4. What scientific breakthrough most influenced your work and why?
While I was doing my PhD here at SickKids, I was in the laboratory that identified the cystic fibrosis gene. Many ideas that were developed in the lab at the time were foundational to the development of a whole new type of genetic investigation – disease gene identification – and I got to see it firsthand. It had a significant impact on what my philosophy of science is and how I have planned my own career of experiments. It was a lucky moment to be in the right place at the right time. I capitalized on the fact that there were a lot of good experiences that I could take forward.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like to spend time with my family. I have two kids and I love to spend time with them and teach them new things. I help coach my son’s hockey team so I spend a lot of time in arenas watching hockey and that is probably my favourite thing to do. I also really enjoy spending time at the cottage with my family. When I’m on my own, I like kayaking and contemplating my ideas.

6. Why science?
I have always been very curious and that is really what a scientist is. You take your curiosity and perform experiments to explain the reasons for why you had the questions to begin with. I was also always interested in medicine, so I became a biomedical scientist. I think the impact you can have as a scientist is significant, because if you make a big discovery you can affect the whole world. Doctors impact families, which is hugely important, but there is something extra special about making a discovery that is going to impact people around the world and change the way that they think about things.

After I got into science, to my surprise, I found out how competitive the field was. Growing up I was a ‘second-born’ and also played a lot of sports so I have always been a very competitive person. It was really great to find a career where I compete with my mind. This is the perfect career for me. A career in science takes persistence but it can be very satisfying and it’s been good for me.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was a graduate student, I knew I wanted to work in genetics and at the time SickKids was the leading place to study genetics in Canada. I came to the University of Toronto knowing I wanted to work in human genetics but I hadn’t yet chosen a lab. In the fall of 1987, I attended a talk given by Dr. Ron Worton, the Geneticist-in-Chief at SickKids at the time. He was the Canadian representative on the International Human Genome Organization and he had just come back from the very first meeting to give an update. I remember arriving in the auditorium and there weren’t very many people there. I sat at the back since I was a shy student at the time. 

After listening to the talk, I got really excited. I started thinking about which lab in Canada would be the best and have the most impact on this Genome Project. In fact, it was at SickKids in Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui’s lab. I talked to Ron after his talk and he confirmed that SickKids would be a good place to do my rotation. So I did a six week trial rotation in Molecular Genetics at SickKids. Lap-Chee was looking for students and he was really interested in my background working in a yeast genetics lab. It was the perfect fit. I was in the right place at the right time. I happened to be at that seminar, it got my attention and I pursued it. It turned out to be a marriage made in heaven. Lap-Chee and I are still very close – we have a great relationship.

The beauty of working at SickKids is that you get to impact kids lives every day. That is really important, particularly when you have kids of your own and you can see the world through a child’s eyes. When I get really bogged down with administration, I try and step back and view my lab through a child’s eyes – wide open and uninhibited. It is great working in an environment where you can see your research impacting the patients in the hospital and their families. It really allows you to focus your research and come back to the questions that matter.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
Our lab is famous for identifying disease-causing genes. In fact, we have identified genes in many different diseases and disorders and most recently we have been identifying genes in autism spectrum disorder. Autism is very complex. Some children with autism are severely debilitated, while other children have deficits in development but are able to function in society quite effectively. Therefore, how we use this genetic information is challenging and it varies from family to family. 

I think the responsible path is to listen to families and work with them and present them with information in a way that it works best for them. The real challenge is that there are sometimes a few very vocal advocates that may be against our work or findings because (rightfully) they see autism as a behavioral difference, not a medical disorder. It’s important as a researcher to understand this, but to also be stubborn and persistent and stand up for your experiments if that means helping those in need. I’ve learned if you respect the needs of the many and also listen to the needs of the few, controversy can usually be averted.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am currently re-reading a book called Conquest. It tells the story of Cortes’ conquest of Mexico. It is the most amazing story because nowadays there are all these movies about aliens and outer space and people coming and invading the earth. This story is a real life version of that. Montezuma and the Aboriginal people in Mexico worshiped gods and they grew up hearing old tales with descriptions of what these gods looked like. When the Europeans first arrived some, like Cortes, resembled the descriptions of these gods and so at first the Mexicans worshiped them like gods. Then, the Europeans invaded them and conquered their land and the ‘bugs’ they carried exterminated much of the aboriginal populations. Amongst other things, through this story, I can’t help but think that over the past millennium most of Darwin’s forces of natural selection are a result of the actions of humans themselves.

I also enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies. They are good for me because I can learn about desired personal characteristics by studying others. I see Conquest as a biography of Cortes and Montezuma’s strategic and not-so-strategic decisions and what lies behind them, and ultimately the impact their choices and actions had.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
People should only pursue a research career if they really have an innate passion for it. The challenge in science is that now you really don’t start your own laboratory, your own life, until you’re in your mid-thirties, while many of your friends are starting their lives in their twenties. It is important to find something that you are good at and that you will work hard at it. If you are fortunate to have the opportunity, pursue something where you will make a difference. Think about what you want written on your tombstone and let that help guide your big decisions.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
We’ve been located in the MaRS facility since 2005 and it’s been great for us since we do a lot of work with the University of Toronto and the other teaching hospitals around us. But, the new building will bring us back onto the SickKids campus and closer to our focus on the study of childhood diseases. I’m really excited about that! With the launch of our new Centre for Genetic Medicine, the impact of genetics across the hospital will continue to grow. This is a logical move to return to our roots and once again build from the inside out. We will also be doubling our space – which is always a good thing!

July 2012

View scientific profile »»
The Centre for Applied Genomics (TCAG) »»