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About the Institute

Profile of Cathy Barr

By: Anne Coffey

Dr. Cathy Barr, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto
  • Senior Scientist, Genetics & Development Division, Toronto Western Research Institute

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in Texas and I did my PhD at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I also did part of my graduate training at the Department of Biophysics at Kings College London. For my postdoctoral training, I studied at Yale where I met a charming Canadian who was also a fellow in the lab. I always say I followed him home to Canada. Upon arrival in Canada, I completed a second postdoctoral fellowship at SickKids with Lap-Chee Tsui

2. What are you researching right now?
My long-term studies are dyslexia and childhood-onset psychiatric disorders. Everything I do is aimed at figuring out the basic nature and brain function of these disorders. One of my current pet projects is the development of high throughput methods that will allow us to test the function of genetic variation from patient DNA samples. Right now in genetics, one of the biggest challenges is identifying and determining the function of genetic risk changes in the part of the genome that influences the expression of genes. I have modified a method that will allow us to identify and test the function of thousands of gene regulatory regions simultaneously.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I am not sure of my favourite, but for me the most fascinating is Rosalind Franklin, PhD, who worked in my former department at Kings College. She worked out the structure of DNA. James Watson heard one of her talks and work from her lab books was shown to him by Maurice Wilkins. He described what he saw to Francis Crick and they worked out the helix. At first they made a triple helix model and unveiled it to Rosalind Franklin where she laughed because she knew that it was incorrect. Unfortunately, she died of cancer and was not able to be nominated for the Nobel Prize. Wilkins,Watson and Crick were awarded the prize instead. James Watson maligned her personality in his book and this is now how the world sees her. 

It is clear from her lab notes that she was on the verge of figuring out the structure.  She knew the Beta-form was a helix but was puzzled by the Z-form so she didn’t publish before Watson and Crick worked it out and published first. I read a book written by her student which gives a completely different picture of her personality than Watson’s book portrays. Francis Crick became good friends with her before she died and also had a very different opinion than Watson’s. It is unfortunate that everyone knows Watson and Crick but few know about Franklin’s contribution.  

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Two things – the development of induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells and high throughput sequencing technology. First, iPS cells allow us to study genetic changes in the correct cell type. I work on brain disorders and it has been difficult to have brain tissues with DNA changes. With iPS cells, we are able to take skin tissues from patients, convert them into neurons and study how these changes affect neurons. Second, high throughput sequencing allows us to answer so many questions about basic biology. We recently used these methods to look at methylation at each base pair in the mouse brain and we made a groundbreaking discovery. Previously it was thought that a specific DNA modification could only occur in embyronic cells but we found this change also occurs in the brain. This finding will basically rewrite the text book on this subject. It is one of those cases where we thought a basic biological fact was fact and there turns out to be this big exception!   

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Travel and reading are my favorite activities. Luckily, science combines both of my favorite things!  I have been able to go on amazing trips to conferences. And because I have friends and former trainees all over the world, I have been able to visit many interesting places. A former trainee in Japan frequented a bar where a Geisha entertained. We were able to sit with her and ask her questions and she performed a beautiful dance for us.  

6. Why science?
I often wonder what else I could be doing with my life and to be honest I couldn’t think of another thing that I would want to do. I sometimes get frustrated at politics and management issues but when it comes down to it, I only want to answer questions and figure things out.  

7. Why SickKids?
I have just celebrated my 20-year anniversary at SickKids! I started here as a postdoctoral fellow and then was able to move to a scientist position.  

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I can’t think of a big controversy in the field right now. One thing that worries me is what is happening in science literacy right now. All over the world, there seems to be less emphasis on facts and more emphasis on beliefs.  

9. What are you reading right now?
I just finished The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. This book has everything. It starts so simple with a man escaping from his nursing home but covers the grand adventure that was (and is) his life. During his life he dines with Truman, becomes friends with Mao, escapes from a Gulag prison and helps develop the atom bomb. I’m actually in two book clubs right now – one with friends and one in my condo building.   

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Just do what you love.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I am really looking forward to hosting a conference in the new building. It is a beautiful space and the environment will really facilitate interactions – a place where people will want to stay and talk.

December 2013

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