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About the Institute

Profile of Olivia Rissland

By Carolyn Gooderham
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Dr. Olivia Rissland

Dr. Olivia Rissland, PhD

  • Scientist, Molecular Medicine
  • Assistant Professor, Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from and where did you study?
I was born in Boston and I grew up in Massachusetts. I went to Brown University, and then I did my graduate work at the University of Oxford in the UK on a Rhodes Scholarship. Going to Oxford was an amazing experience and I still feel very lucky to have had that opportunity. I came back to Cambridge, Massachusetts and completed my post-doctoral work at the Whitehead Institute with Dr. David Bartel.

2. What are you researching right now?
We are trying to understand the fundamental mechanisms that control how genes are expressed. Genes are encoded in DNA and every cell in our body has the same DNA. I like to think of DNA as being analogous to a kitchen pantry. It is filled with ingredients you can use to make a variety of dishes. You can make apple pie or lasagna, but what varies between these dishes is the different ingredients, not the pantry itself. It is also important to add the proper amount of ingredients: in an apple pie you might want to have a dash of nutmeg, but not a cup. In the same way, from the same DNA, you can make a liver cell or a skin cell. We are trying to understand how cells control the ingredients used in the cellular dishes. Broadly speaking, we call this the regulating of gene expression.

Understanding how gene expression is controlled is very important because often in diseases like cancer, the programs that regulate the quantities of ingredients have gone awry, so you get too much of some ingredients and too little of other ingredients. If we can understand the fundamental mechanisms, we’ll be in a better position to understand and treat disease.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
At first I thought about choosing a Nobel Prize winner like Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, or Dorothy Hodgkin who developed protein crystallography but then decided on a slightly more sentimental answer. My all-time favourite scientists are my parents. They are both computer scientists who worked in the field of artificial intelligence, and they’re the real reason why I became a scientist.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
This is a tricky question. There are the classic breakthroughs like the discovery of the double helix and genetic code. These are the fundamental building blocks; nearly everything that we think about in modern day biology stems from those discoveries. For that matter, the idea of evolution is also fundamentally important.

In terms of modern discoveries, I think a lot of the techniques like polymerase chain reaction (PCR), restriction digests, and recently CRISPR technology (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) have all been transformative in terms of how we conduct science and are able to answer more questions.

If I think about what I did in graduate school, in terms of what was possible, and what is possible now, the field has changed drastically in as little as 10 years. The really cool thing is that right now we’re only limited by our imaginations, not by technology, which makes this a very exciting time to be doing science.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
The biggest interest I have that takes up most of my time outside of the lab is running. I run ultramarathons, which are races longer than a marathon, and I’ve been doing this for three and a half years. I have a big race coming up at the end of August. It’s called “TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie),” and it is a 75 mile race in the Alps going from Courmayeur, Italy to Chamonix, France. I have also started to explore some Canadian races. Last summer I did a race out in Squamish, British Columbia, which is a really beautiful part of the country that looks like the elven woods in the Lord of the Rings. That was very cool for the first few hours, but the woods made the race very difficult, so by the end I was cursing “Rivendell”.

6. Why science?
I have always really enjoyed the intellectual puzzle-solving aspect of science. You have a lot of facts and you know they must fit together somehow but, like any puzzle, it’s hard to see at first how that can be possible. I also like that biology is rooted in a physical problem. Trying to understand how we go from a genome and a single cell to a person, how that is encoded and influenced by the environment and genetic factors, is a really big question.

My enjoyment of science has also really changed now that I have my own lab. All that interest still exists, but now I’m really enjoying having people in my lab and getting to see how they’re maturing and growing as scientists. There’s this feeling that I’m actually helping them to become better scientists, and it has been hugely rewarding to be a part of something bigger than just my own experiment.

7. Why SickKids?
When I came for my interview, I was stunned by the building. It’s a beautiful space with lots of light that just makes you want to do science. I hoped that the building reflected some underlying ethos, and as I met and talked to people here, it turned out to be better than I had hoped.

After my interview, I didn’t even want to admit out loud how much I loved it. When I was talking to my husband and he asked how the interview went, I said it was “ok.” I was worried that if I didn’t get a job offer, I would spend the rest of my life being disappointed that I wasn’t at SickKids. The environment, the collaborative atmosphere and the fact that everyone is doing really high quality science all drew me here. To be surrounded by these amazing scientists who are so invested in the community, and also to have the resources to do the science that I want to do — this is my dream job!

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The big question that we’re facing as molecular biologists is how to move away from a reductionist approach that was common in the 1980s through to the early 2000s, where you might look at a single gene and a single protein. We’re moving to a more complex model, where we have to appreciate the cell isn’t just a bag of enzymes and we have to think about thousands of genes, rather than just one. How do we understand this very complex environment? This is a huge challenge.

A lot of times it really seems we have everything figured out, and then we open some door and realize there are so many rooms and doors beyond that. Even over the past 15 years, we’ve discovered new molecules that we hadn’t even imagined.

9. What are you reading right now?
I recently finished a book called Creativity Inc. It is an exceptional book written by one of the cofounders of Pixar, Ed Catmull. He talks a lot about how Pixar’s culture was created. He told the story of how he went from an idea, the desire to animate with computers, to what we know of today as Pixar. This story has applications to somebody who is starting a lab and trying to build a lab culture. Next I’m going to take a break from serious books and reread the Harry Potter series.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
It’s important to find a question that you really care about. Science can be a tough job, but if you really love what you do, if you love the question and you care about finding the answer to that question, then it’s no longer work, it’s something you want to do.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
The building represents a support of basic science. Performing fundamental, foundational research is important and something to be proud of, and it’s something that SickKids is clearly proud of. As an architectural space, this building encourages the type of science that I think is really important. It fosters collaboration between labs. If you put some smart people together in a building that encourages them to start talking, they are going to do innovative and exciting research.

August 2015