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About the Institute

Profile of Margot Taylor

Photo of Margot Taylor
Dr. Margot Taylor

Dr. Margot J. Taylor, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Director, Functional Imaging, Department of Diagnostic Imaging
  • Professor, Medical Imaging, Departments of Paediatrics and Psychology, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I am originally from British Columbia but growing up my family lived in many different places, including Venezuela, Iran and Pakistan.

I eventually ended up back in British Columbia and received my undergraduate degree in psychology and Master’s degree in psychophysiology from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. I moved to Montreal to pursue my doctoral studies in experimental psychology at McGill University in Montreal. After a one-year post-doc at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, I came to SickKids.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am looking at development of frontal lobe functions. These are cognitive functions that develop continuously over the life span, but particularly markedly in childhood through adolescence. They include the brain functions that allow us to plan, to change behaviour and to inhibit responses. They all include aspects related to working memory. I am looking at these cognitive skills as they are functions which are deficit in a number of paediatric populations such as children with autism and children who are born pre-term. These are the two main clinical groups that my team and I are studying.

The preterm population is children born more than two months early (fewer than 32 weeks gestational age). These children have a very high incidence of academic problems when they hit school age – over 50 per cent. I am doing neuroimaging studies in these children when they are at school age and my neonatology colleagues suggested that it would be really important for them to understand what was going on in the brains of these children when they are born, that may predict these academic problems later, as there are not any reliable clinical prognostic measures. So another arm of this research includes longitudinal studies which use imaging to look at the brains of preterm infants at different points. We first do multi-modal brain imaging when they are born, then when they reach term age, and again at the age of two and four years. Our studies also include developmental assessments so we can try and determine what brain atypicalities in the preterm period are producing these marked cognitive problems at school age.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Marie Curie. I admire her because she managed as a woman in that era (the 1890s) to not only have a successful career in science but to also become a Nobel Prize winner and she managed to do all of that while having a family. It is not always easy to find a balanced life as a scientist and while she was an incredibly talented and committed scientist, she was able to dedicate herself to her family and to her work in a time when women usually weren’t involved in science.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
This is a difficult question to isolate just one breakthrough, but I would have to say it is penicillin and other early antibiotics and vaccinations. That cluster of developments is important because it has saved so many lives.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Music, theatre: the arts. I enjoy attending the opera and musical productions and theatre. I also used to sing in a choir for many years.

6. Why science?
It allows us to keep doing new things all of the time. I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be in research. I think it is the appeal of the fact that there are always new questions to answer and new things to do in science. Science would be a terrible career choice for people that prefer a routine because there is no routine in science – I like the constant change and new challenges.

7. Why SickKids?
I chose SickKids because of the combination of the incredible research institute and the incredible advanced clinical practice that is available here. I actually left SickKids and moved to France in 1998 in what I thought would be a permanent, one-way move. My family and I moved to Toulouse where I became a directeur de recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research) CerCo lab (Brain and Cognition Research Centre).

There I was living a very nice life in the south of France but I found that I couldn’t do the work that related to clinical populations. It felt like there was no translational aspect to my research and so I came back. It is the combination of phenomenal medical staff that are very open and involved in research, with the strong basic research – it’s a combination that is just unbeatable. SickKids is totally unique and very special for that reason. It was important enough that it brought me back from a great life in France with a permanent job with permanent funding. I spent six years in France and returned to SickKids in 2004.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One question that raises a lot of discussion is the nature versus nurture problem. I know it is an age-old question, but with the increasing advances in genome studies this keeps coming up in terms of how much is inbred and how much is learned, and understanding the interaction between them. Obviously there is huge interaction, but trying to weigh and figure out that balance is one of the biggest questions.

9. What are you reading right now?
Apart from all of my scientific reading, I do try to have a book on the go. At the moment I am reading Reflections on a Mountain Lake by Ani Tonzin Palmo. It is dharma teachings by an English Buddhist nun. I am trying to keep a balance and have been chipping away at it over time. It is a series of lectures and I enjoy reading the various teachings.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You have to love it, to do it. You have to be totally convinced that this is what you want to do. There are no part-time scientists and you have to want to do this beyond everything else. It can be stressful and it is consuming and while you do need balance, you need to have the desire.

I wouldn’t push anyone into this career, but if they had the passion to do it, I would absolutely encourage them. It is not an easy choice, but it is so exciting and rewarding.

11. How do you find subjects for your research?
My studies are not exclusively on preterm and autistic children. I am always looking for healthy children (age six to 12 years) to participate in my research studies as control participants to help us with our comparative research.

Our research is non-invasive and involves a brain imaging and simple psych assessments. It takes about two hours of time and each child who participates gets a copy of images of their brain to take home. The children really enjoy this exposure to science and just love getting pictures of their own brain.

If anyone has children who would be interested in participating or learning more about this program, I would be delighted to speak with them; they can contact me at margot.taylor@sickkids.ca, or my research assistant Laura Hopf (ext. 4299 or by email at laura.hopf@sickkids.ca).

May 2010

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