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About the Institute

Profile of Perrin Baker

Photo of Perrin Baker
Dr. Perrin Baker

By: Anne Coffey

Dr. Perrin Baker, PhD

  • Post-Doctoral Fellow, Molecular Medicine

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from Toronto and I did both my undergrad and PhD at the University of Guelph. I completed my undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology and Genetics and then switched fields completing my PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology, focusing in biochemistry, under the guidance of Dr. Stephen Seah.      

2. What are you researching right now?
I am currently part of Lynne Howell’s lab in Molecular Medicine. We research bacterial biofilms involved in cystic fibrosis. Biofilms are essentially coatings surrounding a bacterial city that act as a sort of force field, making the bacteria more resistant to antibiotics and the immune system. One of the major components of these biofilms are long sugar chains called exopolysaccharides. I’m looking at ways that we can actually inhibit these sugar chains, or get them to lower their shields so to speak.

If we can inhibit the bacteria from producing these sugars or find ways to destroy them once they form, then conventional antibiotics can be used to treat infection. I’m working with Dr. Roman Melnyk to find inhibitors to prevent the formation of these biofilms.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I have to say Charles Darwin. To me, it’s really interesting how he began making observations in his garden and conceptualizing how things came to be. He went on a world tour – almost like a rock star –observing life. For instance, Darwin observed finches, looking from year to year, and saw evolutionary changes in a very short period of time. Here at SickKids, almost everyone deals with evolution in their own regard. Having DNA sequences from many organisms enables us to actually see speciation events.  Evolution is becoming really applicable in terms of the work we are doing because bacteria are evolving to become resistant to many of the antibiotics that exist on the market today. This underlies the importance of finishing your course of antibiotics! Otherwise, it’s really like Darwinian fitness – the failure to finish your antibiotics leads to a small percentage of bacteria that may survive and move forward. I think what was applicable in Darwin’s age is still very – if not more – applicable now, especially in the health care setting.     

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Prior to the human genome project, I think that one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs was actually Robert Hooke’s discovery of cells in 1665. He observed, for the very first time, cork cells underneath a microscope. He was able to visualize a nucleus, organelles and other distinguishing components of cells. His discovery of cells led to cell theory which states three things: one, that all life is composed of cells; two, that all cells come from other cells through division; and three, that cells are the basic unit of life. So while things like the Human Genome Project are really broad and have really impactful meaning, I think that observing cells, the basic unit of all life, has really set the tone for what has been discovered in research over the past 350 years.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
One of the things I like to do is communicate science to people. To that end, I’ve taken on a number of projects such as Science Rendezvous and the opening of the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning. At both events, I had the opportunity to explain some of the work we do in our lab through fun, hands on activity that proved popular for all ages. I also recently captained a team for the SickKids 5 km run. Our team here raised over $5,000 dollars which represented about 20 per cent of the total proceeds! Other than that, my wife and I love to travel. We love hiking and being in the outdoors. I’ve been to five of the seven continents and I’ve hiked on all of them.

6. Why science?
I think I’ve always been fascinated with science. For me, science started with an innate curiosity with the very basic rudimentary science that is taught in elementary school. We had this program called Mad Science where individuals came into our school and put on science demonstrations, like taking baking soda and vinegar and blowing up a balloon. I became fascinated with seeing science actually being done. One time we made cotton candy; another time we made carbonated water and then added colouring and flavour to make it cola. As a Grade 3 student, that was really cool! We also made rockets and fired them off in the school playground. In Grade 6 I saw a microscope for the first time and looked at the difference between sugar and salt and the crystalline states underneath the microscope and documented what I was seeing. This was fascinating! In high school I picked up more of the biology side of things. I enjoyed listening to my teacher talk about biology and that sparked my curiosity for going on to study science in university. I believe that my early exposure to science education provides my motivation and interest for communicating science to children, students and the general public.

7. Why SickKids?
I studied enzymes during my PhD and I wanted to really compliment my studies with doing crystallography – which is a technique used to visualize proteins at the atomic level. Every year my supervisor, Lynne Howell puts on a conference called the BHT (Buffalo Hamilton Toronto) conference in Hamilton. It brings crystallographers together and I was blown away with the different aspects of crystallography. I looked at Lynne’s track record and I thought, wow, this would be a great lab because not only is it crystallography, but it allows me to impart some of my own skills in enzymology, and bring the two together. I guess it started with wanting to work with Lynne and grew because SickKids is an internationally recognized, phenomenal institution.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
There are differing views about how the sugars that compose bacteria force fields are produced. They’re proposed to be made in an assembly line process, similar to making a car. It’s not really known to what extent that these proteins interact with one another. One of the ways that we study phenomenon is by knocking out one of the proteins, so all of a sudden you have a kink in the assembly line process.

Trying to interpret what exactly happens when you make a mutation or take out a component of the assembly line is difficult. Is a sugar still produced? Does it remain inside the bacteria? Does it go outside the bacteria and float away and not create the force field? We just know that the force field isn’t created, but what’s happening to the components that make this important force field remains unknown.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book called Looptail: How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business by Bruce Poon Tip.

When my wife and I travel we always use a company called G Adventures based in Toronto. Poon Tip founded the company 20 years ago. The book examines how a for-profit business can make a positive contribution through tourism. You don’t have to be a nonprofit organization to actually help individuals in developing countries. Sustainable travel can be achieved through helping entrepreneurs in countries and the book demonstrates how one person travelling can make a difference somewhere else in the world.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I would say start early. In science, it’s really important to get involved. Science can be quite competitive – and there is a need to set apart oneself from many students with science degrees. I started completing research when I was in the third year of my undergraduate degree as a summer research student through NSERC. This exposed me to four months in the lab where I had the opportunity to meet the professor as well as various trainees, post-doctoral fellows, graduate students and hear their experiences while learning more about what research is like. Hearing from people about their experiences may give you a competitive edge. Start early if you are considering a science career and you’ll know whether or not to continue it. Talk with your teaching assistants or other people in the lab to see how those people have constructed their scientific careers.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I think for us it’s all about collaboration. The whole building’s focus is really to create multidisciplinary collaborations and facilitate information transfer. Being on various committees at SickKids I’ve gotten to know various people from different labs here which has helped, but not everyone necessarily goes out of their way to meet someone in another lab. In general, it will benefit people because we will run into each other more. The design of the building will really facilitate that.

As well, I think the introduction of the SPARC BioCentre, which is going to house a lot more in-house screening for various drug inhibitors, is going to be really important for us.

December 2013