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About the Institute

Profile of Lisa Muiznieks

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Dr. Lisa Muiznieks

By: Elissa Hanna

Dr. Lisa Muiznieks, PhD

  • Post-doctoral Fellow, Molecular Medicine

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born and grew up in Sydney, Australia. I did my undergraduate degree in molecular biology and genetics at the University of Sydney with an honours year in biochemistry, and my PhD in biochemistry also at Sydney University. Then, I took a year off to travel before I came to SickKids to start my Post-Doctoral Fellowship with Dr. Fred Keeley.       

2. What are you researching right now?
In the Keeley Lab we work on the protein elastin. Elastin is what makes your tissues, such as lungs and blood vessels and your skin, “stretchy,” or elastic. The elastin in your body is remarkably durable and resilient. For example, when your heart pumps blood it’s the elastin in, say, your aorta that allows the blood vessel to stretch and recoil with every heartbeat. This can occur more than two billion times over a lifetime! But we still don’t know exactly how elastin is able to impart this elasticity to tissues. To investigate this, we are studying how elastin assembles from its monomeric “building blocks” into fibres and networks. We are also looking at how the molecular properties of elastin affect its structural features and the mechanical properties of materials.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
One scientist who has had a personal influence on me and who I’ve always looked up to is my grandfather, Francis Harlow. He is a theoretical physicist who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico for about 50 years focusing on problems of fluid dynamics. He’s sharp and naturally curious, which is a pretty formidable combination, and he approaches everything he does with a passion that’s inquisitive and creative. I think being a scientist is all about how you think and approach problems, so naturally this is going to influence many aspects of your life, not just your time at work. My grandfather’s curiosity extends in all directions, from painting, to being an expert scholar on Native American pottery, and on brachiopod fossils! I am amazed at the diversity of his accomplishments. He is definitely an inspiration.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
This is a hard question, there are so many! But personally, I think the concept of heredity, which is the idea that traits are passed genetically from one individual to another, is exceptionally elegant. This discovery (along with the identification of DNA as the carrier of genetic information) has lead to the field of genetics, allowing us a better understanding of so many genetic diseases, as well as the ability to manipulate food crops. I've always been taken by the experiments done by the monk Gregor Mendel [LINK: http://www.biography.com/people/gregor-mendel-39282 ], who cross-bred thousands of pea plants and came up with the idea of inherited traits (now know as "Mendelian inheritance") to explain his results. His deduction of recessive and dominant trait inheritance arose from what must have been countless hours of meticulous observations and note-taking on his plants!

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I love being outdoors and exploring, whether that be just walking around the city discovering different neighbourhoods, or cycling, or travelling. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some spectacular wilderness while hiking and camping around Canada and overseas. Also, the Canadian winter is still a novelty to me, even after several years here. I’ve discovered how fun it is to go cross-country skiing and to skate on a real pond, and I’ve also become an avid hockey fan!

6. Why science?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved science, including spending hours on puzzles, and the practical “hands-on” aspect of making and creating things. In high school I especially enjoyed biology and chemistry, and when I first discovered that there was a discipline called “biochemistry” I couldn’t believe my good luck! I think there is something really rewarding about a job where you are free to ask your own questions and create ways to explore the answers.

7. Why SickKids?
I came to SickKids to work in Fred Keeley’s lab. I knew Fred from conferences and really liked the work that he was doing. Quite separately, I’ve had the chance to hear about so much great science that’s being done here at SickKids. The facilities are world class, and I’m impressed with how many opportunities and programs there are for trainees that are hard to find in other places.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
In the elastin field, the molecular basis of elasticity remains controversial. For nearly seventy years now there have been competing arguments that differ primarily on how much structure there is in the protein, and to what extent certain types of structure or disordered regions may influence or drive the mechanical properties of elastic materials.  

9. What are you reading right now?
I've just finished reading Homer's Iliad, which recounts the ancient story of the siege of Troy. It's such an epic tale that spans the realms of gods and mortals on earth, and sea, and sky! I also think it’s impressive that the tale existed for maybe centuries in only the spoken form, especially as the writing is so lyrical.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Since I’m just at the beginning of my career, my advice would be more for students wondering what a research job is like. I think it’s important to appreciate that research is very different from taking classes, where there are textbooks giving you all the right answers. In research, persistence and creativity and patience are essential because the questions you will be tackling don’t necessarily have an answer, or the answers may take years or even decades to emerge!

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
Right now our lab is located within a building that is peripheral to the main hospital, so I’m excited that the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning will bring us together with others in our program! The new building is also an impressive draw card to entice even more of the best minds worldwide to SickKids, which will only add to the amazing breadth of ideas and creativity that’s already here.

April 2013