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About the Institute

Profile of Julie Forman-Kay

Dr. Julie Forman-Kay

Dr. Julie Forman-Kay, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Molecular Medicine
  • Professor of Biochemistry, University of Toronto

Where are you from? Where did you study?
I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado where my father served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army. My family moved to Cleveland when I was less than a year old, where my father found work as a Rabbi in a prominent synagogue. When I was six we moved to Norfolk, Virginia - my parents still live there.

I completed my undergraduate degree in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). While there, I worked in several labs including the lab of Greg Petsko. Dr. Petsko now serves on the SickKids Scientific Advisory Board. Following my studies at MIT, I went to Yale to work on my PhD in the department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry under the supervision of Fred Richards. I completed my post-doctoral work at the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland in 1992.

What are you researching right now?
I study protein molecules. Proteins do almost everything in the cell. They are made up of a linear chain of chemical groups. After proteins are synthesized, they usually fold up into a stable structure. When this folding occurs, it enables the function of the protein, sometimes including interactions with different proteins.

When I came to SickKids, one of the proteins I was studying was not stably folded and I realized that this disordered state was what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to understand how disorder has facilitated the evolution of complex biological processes that require complex regulation. The more complicated the regulation, the more disorder is present. For example, three quarters of all cancer proteins are disordered.

Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I wouldn’t say that I have a single favourite scientist. But since you asked, the scientist who has been most influential for me personally is Fred Richards from Yale. He definitely influenced the way I think about science. He taught me that science was all about ideas and he showed me that instead of simply adding a piece of knowledge to an existing framework, you could actually shift the whole paradigm. Fred (Richards) believed that scientific questions should drive science, not techniques. In his lab he had a whole arsenal of tools at his disposal – all working on the same problem – from computational biology to crystallography. He led by example; science was not about ego for him. He was from a different era, what I think of as a “gentleman scientist”.

What are your major interests outside of the lab?
My family. I’m also very involved in my synagogue, Darchei Noam. I have also spoken at a previous synagogue about the intersection of science and religion, a particular area of interest for me. I love music and used to play in a chamber music quartet.

Why science?
I never grew out of the ‘why? why? why?’ stage. People are satisfied at different levels of why. I still have lots of questions about physical chemistry.

Why SickKids?
Dr. (Bibudhendra) Amu Sarkar recruited me. SickKids and Dr. Sarkar provide a really good model for the successful interaction between basic science and clinical relevance. Dr. Sarkar was also very helpful in creating a solid life work balance for his staff. When I decided to have kids, Dr, Sarkar was extremely supportive. In fact, he has always been involved in my children’s lives. He has taken them to Rosedale’s Mayfair almost every year.

What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
This relates again to the disordered states of protein. Most people equate order with function. People want a precise 3D picture to explain biology. However, many proteins will never form ordered structures and that is tough for some people to accept. Once you get over this barrier, you open a new world of even more complex and dynamic structures – it’s actually pretty exciting.

May 2009

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