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Profile of Sheena Josselyn

Dr. Sheena Josselyn
Dr. Sheena Josselyn

Dr. Sheena Josselyn, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Associate Professor, Physiology, University of Toronto
  • Canada Research Chair, Molecular and Cellular Cognition

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio and grew up in Kingston, Ontario. I studied close to home at Queen’s University and received my undergraduate degree before moving to Toronto to pursue my PhD in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Toronto. After completing my PhD I moved to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut for post-doctoral studies. I then moved to Los Angeles to join my husband (fellow SickKids research, Dr. Paul Frankland) in Los Angeles and pursued a second post-doctoral degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Once I finally completed my studies, I moved back to Toronto and took up a research position at SickKids.

2. What are you researching right now?
Through my research I am currently looking at how the brain encodes and stores information. We are interested in how a small but important event that may happen to an individual can stick with you for your entire life. How does the brain possibly remember these rather insignificant events? It is one-trial learning – you really need only put your hand on a hot stove once to learn that it is hot and you should stay away from it. This lesson sticks with you forever – you don’t see many 60 year-olds putting their hand on a hot stove!

I recently published a paper on fear memories, for example. These memories are so important and you may only have a single experience but your brain retains this memory. We want to understand why these memories stick with you and what are the circuits in the brain that encode this. With that particular study, we looked at how we might be able to erase this memory and were successful in doing so in an animal model.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
My favourite scientist is Dr. James D. Watson. An American researching at Cambridge University in England in the 1950s, he and his partner Francis Crick are credited with helping to uncover the structure of DNA - the double helix. Their work really opened the door to genetic research and they shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962 for this discovery.

Though controversial to some, I admire Dr. Watson for the personality he brings to his research. He always managed to have a lot of fun and from him I learned that science is human and personal and not an emotionless pursuit of knowledge. He has written some great books, largely written in plain language for the lay public, which are very accessible and easy to understand. One book in particular which I enjoyed was written as advice for young scientists. Entitled, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, he encourages readers to always seek knowledge from others and strive to be the dumbest in the room so that you are surrounded by people you can learn and grow from. He officially retired in 2007, but is still active and now serves as Chancellor Emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
In my opinion the discovery of the structure of DNA and the mapping of the human genome are both enormously important breakthroughs. They served to essentially crack the DNA code which is the real basis of life. Before we had this understanding we were so limited in what we could do, and now a whole new world of knowledge has opened to us.

5. What are your interests outside the lab?
I don’t have a lot of interests outside of the lab these days as I am a new mother, and that takes up a lot of my time. Aside from that, I am a runner and really enjoy that personal time.

6. Why science?
Science has always been of interest to me, right from my early days in school. When I was in high school it was clear to me and my teachers that I would definitely pursue a career in science. I think that the field of science is the one place where we are allowed to pursue our interests. You can ask just about any question and you can be amazed everyday at work. It is never boring, it is never dull and there is always something really interesting happening.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was growing up, SickKids was always such a prestigious hospital; everyone across Canada had heard of SickKids. Now, whenever I tell people where I work, I always get a smile. Even crossing the border, or in a typical situation where people aren’t necessarily that friendly, it seems that people always have a nice feeling about things when they find out where I work.

I also like the thought of doing research that can help children. Even though my research is very basic science, I hope my work will help children in the long run. I mean, the goal of my research is not to understand how mice learn and remember. I am really interested in exploring how humans learn and remember things. My research uses mice as a proxy for humans in the hopes that we can eventually develop treatments for learning and memory disorders in people.

Now that I am here working at SickKids, I have all of the resources necessary for my research at my fingertips and the people around me really inspire me. I can look down the hall and see really high-power researchers working all around me. I really like that atmosphere.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the controversial questions in my field concerns memory. How long can memories be stored? What actually is the physical thing that might change in the brain – it is chemical, is it a structural change? What exactly is happening to allow the brain to remember these things?

There are a lot of unknowns and the brain is sort of like a black box. We understand pretty much how the heart works, how muscles work, but the brain is much more complex. The brain is so much more intricate and it doesn’t give up its secrets all that easily – it really is a hard one to study. But that is what makes it so interesting for me. It is like the final frontier of science.

September 2009

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