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About the Institute

Profile of Elizabeth Pang

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Dr. Elizabeth Pang

By: Jacob Sintzel

Dr. Elizabeth Pang, PhD

  • Associate Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Neurophysiologist, Neurology
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Paediatrics

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up right here in the Toronto area. I completed my undergraduate university studies at the University of Toronto, which was a bachelor of science. Then I did my masters and PhD at York University.

2. What are you researching right now?
Right now, I’m looking at how the brain processes language. The reason I’m looking at this is that we have some patients who go for brain surgery and when we do brain surgery, we want to avoid parts of the brain that control important things like language, motor functions and vision. For someone who is developing typically and has no disease in the brain, all of those brain areas are well-known. For example, we know exactly where your brain will process language. If you have a brain condition like a tumour or epilepsy or something that affects how your brain develops, your brain will move some of your functions around. This is referred to as brain plasticity  — neuroplasticity. 

When your brain starts moving things around, functions may not be located where you would expect. What I do with my research is try to map out the areas of the brain that control these important functions. I’m particularly interested in language, so I want to know where the brain processes language and where the brain processes different aspects of language, so that when kids go to surgery, we can sort out how to avoid those areas.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
I think it has to be Wilder Penfield because he is considered the father of neuroscience in Canada — or in the world, but he was a Canadian. He did all the early brain stimulation studies. In the operating room, he would stimulate parts of the brain and then ask people what they experienced or ask them to perform tasks. So he was the one who actually mapped out big portions of the brain.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I guess the most important scientific breakthrough would be our ability to do brain imaging with the high resolution that we have now. Before we developed functional MRI, in particular, the brain was a black box. Things would go into the brain through your sensory systems — you would hear it or see it -- and then you would see the outputs in the form of movements or language. What went on in the brain was totally unknown, so until we developed these amazing brain imaging machines that demonstrate brain structure and brain function, everything was just a guess. I use a machine called the MEG, and this allows even higher resolution imaging that captures the millisecond processing of the brain.  Before the development of these imaging machines in the last couple of decades, we only had theories about what the brain was doing, and now, we can look at the brain structure and function while a person was alive and completing a task.  We have a much better understanding of how the brain is working.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have two main interests that I spend a lot of time on. I’m an avid hiker so my husband and I, if we travel anywhere around the world, will find the best hiking places and go out for big hikes! We’ve hiked many cool places around the world. The second one is stained glass. I create big stained-glass panels. I design my own patterns and then I’ll make them. Those are projects that I find very relaxing and it kind of turns my mind off science and let’s my mind do something else.

6. Why science?
The opportunity to think of a question and investigate that question and possibly come up with an answer to that question — that’s really exciting. It’s a real privilege to be able to question things and then try to figure out the solution might be, with the hope that your answer will somehow help somebody who needs it.

7. Why SickKids?
I love SickKids! I love the opportunity to be in a place where there are a lot of children. The kids here are so strong. You often see kids who don’t even yet understand the complexity of what they’re going through, and they just keep going. In addition, my colleagues at SickKids are very special people. They care a lot about the children and they’re passionate about their work.  This combination – the children and my colleagues – make working at SickKids a real pleasure.

8. What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading a book called Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien. It’s about a Chinese-Canadian family who reconnect with their roots from China in the 1950’s and 60’s as the revolution was happening by getting to know a Chinese refugee. It’s written as a retrospective, moving back and forth between the present and the past. There’s a Canadian and a Chinese piece, so it also moves back and forth between the two countries so it’s very interesting. I’m learning some history, and I’m learning quite a lot about the culture. It won the Governor General’s Award and other awards this year, so that’s why I chose to read it.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Don’t give up.  In science and research you get rejections all the time. Your grants get rejected and your papers get rejected – it’s part of doing science. I think the key to success is just to keep trying and to keep improving. Just hang in there, and keep doing it.

10. What does the SickKids' Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL) mean to you?
My primary affiliation is with Neurology, a Clinical Division at SickKids, and my secondary affiliation is with Neurosciences & Mental Health in the SickKids Research Institute as a scientist. We are located on the 8th floor of the PGCRL.  The PGCRL is a beautiful space that gathers researchers together and brings focus and strength to my clinical research. It allows my students and team a great place to collaborate, meet and think. It has a very comfortable, collegial atmosphere.

May 2017

Scientific profile