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About the Institute

Profile of James Wasmuth

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Dr. James Wasmuth

Dr. James Wasmuth, PhD

  • Post-Doctoral Fellow, Molecular Medicine

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am from the southwest of England where I grew up moving back and forth between two small towns, one in Cornwall called Newquay and one just outside of Bristol. I have a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Imperial College in London, a Masters from the University of York and a PhD from the University of Edinburgh. I am currently completing a post-doctoral fellowship at SickKids.

2. What are you researching right now?
I use bioinformatics, computer based genome modeling, to research the genomes (hereditary genetic information) of infectious disease. I am most interested in comparing the causative agent of malaria, called Plasmodium, to other disease agents that are related like Toxoplasma that can be used as a model for malaria. I examine and compare their genome sequences and how these organisms have evolved into parasites. We are interested in how the genomes differ from one another. Different types of malaria affect different species, for example some infect humans and some infect rodents.

Most importantly, we are also looking at how parasites can survive inside their host and how they evade and modulate the human immune system. There is evidence that these agents release proteins or chemicals that down regulate our immune system and we are interested in seeing how this occurs.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
My favourite scientist is Dr. John Snow, a Victorian doctor in London. He was the founder of modern epidemiology and an expert in anesthesiology. I like him because while he practiced medicine at the highest level, he was present at the birth of two of Queen Victoria’s children and was also interested in helping the poor and coming up with new methods of studying disease.     

He played a major role fighting cholera. At the time, the perceived wisdom was that something called miasma caused cholera and that it was an airborne disease that affected poor people. Dr. Snow did a lot of work to show that cholera was actually a waterborne disease. He devised many new methods, especially using maps, to show that the disease was actually coming from a particular water source, a well that many people were using. The surgeon-general in London did not accept his methods but Dr. Snow continued to collect data and devise different ways to analyze it. He had to fight a lot of perceived wisdom and fiscal prejudice. It was his work that led to the creation of a decent sewer system in London.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
For me, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the obvious answer. The fact that he observed the natural world and was able to piece together his Theory of Evolution that withstood scientific testing and abuse is significant in itself. It’s an amazingly beautiful theory and it defines everything that I do. Evolution has produced a wonderful groundwork for science and it just makes sense.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I play a lot of rugby and a couple of years ago I decided to start coaching. I coached an inner-city high school rugby team and we ended up winning the regional championship. It was a completely different experience from anything I have ever done before. It was a learning experience for both me and the students. Since then, through the rugby club I belong to, we have been trying to promote rugby at downtown schools. I have also been involved in securing money from the provincial body for health promotion to further expand rugby in downtown schools.

I am not from Canada and I am not sure how long I will be here so I also really enjoy trying to see as much of this beautiful country as possible. Last summer I went to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and this spring my wife and I went out west to the Rockies and Vancouver. I am also aiming to go up North and go canoeing. Canada has just blown me away so far.

6. Why science?
I chose science because when I was ten my science teacher gave me 98 per cent on my science exam and I realized that it was something I was good at. Ever since then I devoted my time and attention to science. I love all aspects of science, even physics which I was never very good at. Through biochemistry I learned how life works and I enjoy exploring all this untapped knowledge. Any small contribution I can make to a new discovery would be so rewarding and I love having that opportunity.

7. Why SickKids?
I knew Dr. John Parkinson from Edinburgh. When he came to SickKids we kept in touch and he seemed to be doing some really interesting work. A few years ago, I was on vacation in New York City and I called him and joked that he should fly me to Toronto. He did and when I was here he asked me if I wanted to come and work at SickKids. I already had a job offer in Stockholm but when I arrived at SickKids, I was shocked with just how large the Research Institute was and the vast amount of research that was going on. I decided to come for nine months and I have now been here for over three years.

In my first nine months, I saw the scale of the work going on at SickKids. To see the really miraculous stuff that happens here, either in the labs or in patient care, it just makes you feel good. I think that if in some little way I can contribute towards any of that I will have succeeded.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I can readily think of two. In my opinion, there is a distinct lack of funding for global health research. This isn’t just a Canadian problem; it’s a world-wide problem. Secondly, there is a whole lot of scientific data being generated and there are lots of new methods in genomics, transciptomics and proteomics. These data are being published but it is then often forgotten about and not combined with the other data that has been generated. This is largely due to a lack of resources. There is funding to complete a study or a project but perhaps not enough for the follow up.

January 2010