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About the Institute

Profile of Shoshana Wodak

Photo of Dr Shoshana Wodak
Dr. Shoshana Wodak

Dr. Shoshana Wodak, PhD, FRCPC

  • Senior Scientist, Molecular Medicine
  • Scientific Director, Centre for Computational Biology (CCB)
  • Professor, Biochemistry and Medical Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I’m from Israel and I studied in Israel and Europe.  I did my PhD at Columbia University in New York City.

2. What are you researching right now?
My area of specialty is computational biology and bioinformatics. We simulate and analyze protein structures and the interactions of proteins with nucleic acids, peptides, other proteins and small molecules. In addition we use bioinformatic methods, applying statistics and computer sciences, to analyze genome scale datasets generated by proteomics techniques and other ‘omics’ approaches, with the goal of gaining information on multi-protein complexes and cellular pathways. We are also involved in trying to predict the function of genes and proteins based on measurements and data that are published in scientific literature.

3. Who is your all-time favorite scientist, and why?
I think my all-time favorite scientist is Richard Feynman. He was a physicist with a very original personality, very different to that of typical scientists. He was both brilliant and unconventional. During his career he was a part of the Manhattan Project, the team that developed the atomic bomb. He was also a good musician and an expert lock picker. He wrote several books – some about his life and some about science – all very enjoyable to read.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I am not sure if I am able to identify one breakthrough as the most important, as there have been many throughout the centuries. The single most important scientific breakthrough in recent times may be the invention of the binary code. The idea of using a binary code rather than other conventions to represent numbers and information was first developed by the Chinese. Its widespread use to represent information has really only occurred in the 20th century and it has brought about the information technology revolution that we have experienced ever since.

5. What are you major interests outside the lab?
I love music and I play a little bit of piano myself. I played as a teenager and a child. Music is a big addition to my life. I also love art, mostly unconventional art. I am involved with art in lots of ways and have many artist friends. I also enjoy sports very much; I like movement, dancing, biking and activities of that type.  

6. Why science?
I have been fascinated by science since I was a small kid. I read encyclopedias and things like that. I was an only child so I was often very lonely and read a lot. I was fascinated especially by the medical sciences and astrophysics.

The biggest influence in my professional life has been my father. He was a pioneering clinical researcher in otorhinolaryngology in Eastern Europe and then in Israel during the years 1930-1962. He was a towering figure and when he died he had more than 200 publications in six languages in his name, and this was 60 years ago! When I was a child, he taught me chemistry and we did all kinds of quizzes together. I was his main companion during the last 12 years of his life, when he was a paraplegic, and that was a big influence on my life.     

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids was looking for someone that specialized in computational biology and bioinformatics. They were looking for someone with some experience and standing in the field. I am from Europe and initially thought it would be weird to live and work in Toronto, but when I met the scientists at SickKids and the University of Toronto, I thought they were fantastic. The research and atmosphere was great and I was attracted to stay and work here.   

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I guess a controversial question in my field is the notion of gene and protein function. It’s a complex notion because function can be defined at different levels, the molecular level and cellular level, as well as by the way the gene/protein silencing can affect the general properties of the cell or organism (phenotype). We don’t fully understand how these different levels are related to one another, and the challenge is to find out.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m an avid reader so I read just about everything. I read scientific papers and scientific journals which I love to read even in my free time and I also read a lot of novels and poetry.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
A research career requires many skills and a particular temperament. Going into it, you need to love constantly learning new things and be critical at the same time. You also need to be able to interact with other scientists and work in a team. The latter requirement may be the most challenging and scientists are generally not well trained to do that.

Going into a research career, one needs a lot of motivation, a ‘calling’ of sorts, as science involves thinking all the time about the problem at hand. A huge dose of optimism and resilience is also required, because when something doesn’t work, one must try again and again and not let go. If a person has all these qualities, is not really interested in making a lot of money but in having an exciting career, then science is it.

11. What does The Research and Learning Tower mean to you?  
It means a lot to me. I’m located off-campus. My group and the Centre for Computational Biology that I direct help other researchers tackle their computational problems. Contacts and collaborations with other SickKids researchers is key to what my group does. The fact that I’m not geographically near my department sometimes makes it difficult to really accomplish certain things. I hope that assembling everyone together in the new Tower will allow and promote collaboration and really improve integration between the different groups.

Nowadays, integration between clinical researchers and fundamental researchers, between computational and theoretical aspects, modeling and experimental aspects is crucial. I think the Tower will help accomplish that.

November 2010