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Profile of Jason Lerch

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Dr. Jason Lerch

Dr. Jason Lerch, PhD

  • Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I was born in Germany and grew up in the United States. I also have family across the Canadian prairies, from Winnipeg to Calgary.

I pursued my education at McGill University in Montreal. I began my post-secondary education in the arts and humanities discipline, pursuing an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. I then went on to study neurosciences in my graduate degrees, focusing on neurology, specifically brain imaging. I came to SickKids in 2005 to do a post-doctoral fellowship and was fortunate enough to be offered a position here following the completion of my studies.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am mostly focusing on neuroanatomy and particularly, how the brain changes when we learn.

We do this, for example by scanning the brain of a mouse before placing them in a maze. Once they learn the maze, we scan their brain again five days later and compare the scans. We then document any changes to the brain that have occurred – anything that has grown or shrunk. Using modern tools of the day such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans on mice, the same way we would in humans, we are able to learn more about the brain and start to get a better understanding of what is happening in the brain through analysis of these images. We can then apply other elements of study – psychology, mathematics, and histology – to figure out how we can best find new methods of assessing how the brain changes with learning. We are now taking these technologies that have been developed to better understand human disease and using them in new ways on smaller animals to obtain new insights into how our brains work.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I would say that my favourite scientist is Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646- 1716). He was born in Germany and was contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton. He is known largely as a philosopher and mathmetician and is credited with inventing calculus and binary logic and basically started a new branch of mathematics. Some of his calculations methodologies are still in use to this day.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
I would suggest that the early work done Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) at the Royal Society of London. Their methods of careful observation – from early disection, to microscopy to the first studies of the beehive – really set the stage for how we do science to this day. Hooke is credited with coining the term ‘cell’. They essentially founded the scientific method and their careful surveillance techniques and attention to detail have become the basis of how all scientific experimentation is undertaken.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy many outdoor activities including hiking, canoeing and kayaking. I have explored many parts of Ontario and Quebec as well as British Columbia and Alberta. I really just enjoy being outside and away from it all for a time.

I also enjoy music and play the mandolin and the flute.

6. Why science?
For me it was actually quite accidental. As I mentioned, I had received my degree in an arts program, in anthropology. Upon completing my degree, I needed a job and found one as a research assistant at the Montreal Neurological Institute. After one year there I became extremely fascinated by the work they were doing and soon I was convinced by my colleagues to pursue a Master’s degree and then a PhD.

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would never have thought I would be in science today. But I was attracted to the field and the combination of so many different areas, psychology, engineering, mathematics and biology that go along with imaging. It is quite exciting to go back and forth between all of these different disciplines.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is appealing to me for similar reasons that imaging appeals to me. It is really neat in terms of how you can go from clinical to basic science to engineering all in one place. You can go between working with mice to doing studies on human subjects all in one location – there are very few places in the world where you can do all of that in one institution. Being able to get expert opinion on genetics, on biology, on clinical practice – the ability to encompass all of that in one place, allowing you to go back and forth from one area to the other is unrivalled in Canada, and there are not very many places in the world that can do this. That, along with the calibre of people that have been attracted to be a part of this institution – Mark Henkelman, John Sled, Michael Salter, to name a few – make this place extremely unique and a desirable place to work. I am relatively new to SickKids and I am very pleased to be a part of this institution.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
In my view of the world, I think it is integrating from the various things we know from different domains into a coherent story about the brain. Making some sense about how various molecules, how folding patterns inside the cell change, how neurons grow and how they differentiate, all the way to which part of the brain are active during certain tasks. But actually being able to go from one end to the other is really the challenge and we haven’t solved that yet. And that is what we need to start to understand. We know a lot about the neuron, we know a lot about the whole brain, but we don’t know much about how one individual neuron turns into a network of millions of them and what really provides cognition as we know it.

January 2010

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