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About the Institute

Profile of Michelle Letarte

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Dr. Michelle Letarte

By: Sylvia Dick

Dr. Michelle Letarte, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Molecular Medicine
  • Professor, University of Toronto
    Departments of Immunology, Medical Biophysics, Obstetrics/Gynaecology and Paediatrics

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am from Quebec City and I completed my undergraduate degree in science at Laval University. In my first year I was one of 25 women out of 500 students! I attended the University of Ottawa where I received a PhD in biochemistry, and from there I went to the University of Oxford for my post-doctoral fellowship.  It was in Oxford that I was introduced to molecular immunology.

2. What are you researching right now?
I discovered endoglin in 1984 when I was studying childhood leukemia. Endoglin is a co-receptor that is mutated in hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia type one (HHT1), a rare genetic disease of the blood vessels. There is a lot of variation in this disease. The symptoms range from mild to severe and so while one person with the disease may get the occasional nosebleed, another could die from a ruptured blood vessel due to an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).

Because HHT is genetic, it is important to know if one carries the gene and if they are passing it on to their children. My lab established a molecular diagnosis for the disease meaning that by doing a genetic test we can tell if a person has the gene mutation or not. Once we know if a child has HHT1 that patient can be monitored regularly before any serious symptoms develop.

Today, we continue to seek more understanding about endoglin and the mechanisms of HHT1 as well as possible treatments for the disease, using animal models.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
In grade three I wrote my first essay on Charles Darwin. He remains my favourite scientist because of his great sense of observation, which is essential to science.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough and why?
It comes back to Darwin and his theory of evolution. I believe that has been the most important scientific breakthrough to date.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I am also a visual artist. My studies in art started as a way to get out of the lab once a week and so I attended evening classes at the Ontario College of Art and Design. I look forward to being a full-time artist when I retire. Music is also a great interest of mine and contemporary classical is my favourite genre. Travelling, cross-country skiing and hiking are also high on my list.

Apart from these activities I am very involved with the International Union of Immunological Societies (IUIS) where I chair the education committee. I also work with Hands Across the Nation (HATN), a volunteer-run organization that aims to positively impact the social and economic conditions in the developing world. We started a literacy program for women in Mali which has been met with lots of enthusiasm.

6. Why science?
From a very young age I have loved science and I always knew I wanted to be in the lab. I am always asking the question “Why?” and science is the best way to find the answers. I chose biochemistry because I liked both biology and chemistry.

7. Why SickKids?
I have been working here for 32 years and I have stayed because this is the biggest and best research institution in the country. From the beginning of my career I knew I wanted to work in a hospital and SickKids is a very uplifting hospital. Because I am a scientist I don’t get to interact with children very often, but when I see them in the halls I am reminded that my work is making a difference. I am here to solve problems, which will eventually help the lives of children. There is nowhere else I would rather be.

8. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon. It is the seventh book of the Outlander series. I am fascinated by her work and I think she is a fantastic writer.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Be sure this is the right choice for you because it is demanding both physically and mentally. Research is a 24-hour a day preoccupation but you still have to maintain a balanced life. You can’t just leave the problem in the lab because your mind is constantly thinking about it, you live with it all the time and so you need to be prepared for that. Science really is an intellectual pursuit and a very intense career choice.

You also have to love technology, especially in experimental science. Technology is changing all the time and you have to be able to adapt to that. Your reward is that you never do the same thing from day to day. Travel is another benefit as you may have many international meetings and collaborations.

10. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I am retiring soon so I will only have an office in the new tower for six months. That said, I see the Centre as the realization of a dream because ever since I started working here, we have had the promise of a new building. I am involved with the Art in Science program at SickKids and we are organizing a competition for art to be displayed in our new home.  The display will remind us of the beauty of scientific exploration.

December 2012

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