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About the Institute

Profile of Russell Schachar

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Dr. Russell Schachar

By: Daniella Vasilovsky

Dr. Russell Schachar, MD, FRCP (C)

  • Senior Scientist, Neurosciences & Mental Health
  • Senior Scientist, Psychiatry
  • Professor, Psychiatry, University of Toronto
  • The TD Bank Financial Group Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I was born in Southern Ontario and grew up in a town called Brantford.

After high school, I went on to pursue medical school at the University of Toronto and went from high school directly to medical school. I then went on to do my residency in psychiatry at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The Department of Psychiatry was new at the time and was very radical, progressive and a terrific place to indulge in your educational whims. It was during this time I became interested in research and completed a four-year postdoctoral fellowship in London, England under the supervision of Professor Sir Michael Rutter, one of the world’s foremost academic child psychiatrists. Following my studies in London I moved back to Toronto to begin my career at SickKids and have been here ever since.

2. What are you researching right now?
I have a number of research interests, but I am currently focusing on children with psychiatric disorders, with particular interest in ADHD (Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and autism.

I think of myself as a cognitive neuroscientist and try to utilize every tool at my disposal, everything from descriptive to phenomenological to animal research models. Mainly, I am trying to leverage a better understanding of how children think, act and feel to understand the nature of their disorders and what accounts for their psychopathology. I spend a lot of time studying, defining, delineating and carefully characterizing the tasks that children with ADHD do not do well on. Once I am able to understand the nature of their cognitive deficits, I am better able to learn more about their other problems. For example, we focus on studies that look at the genetics underlying variation in certain cognitive processes. We can then get people to do tasks in the brain scanner to see which parts of the brain are active in people without cognitive deficits and compare them to children with ADHD.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
I truly admire a lot of scientists for various reasons, but I am fascinated by the work of Dr. Eric Kandel. As an active neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York, Dr. Kandel was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory. He is also a recipient of the Gairdner award, which he will receive this fall in Toronto. He focused his research on the sea snail in order to learn about the biology of memory. However, his interest in memory was driven by his interest in the way humans function and what role memories play in our lives, good and bad. He is fascinated by memory and toyed with the idea of studying memory by looking in depth at the way people thought and felt and believed he should train in psychoanalysis. He also thought it would be important to study the cellular mechanism of memory and that in the end is what he did. Dr. Kandel is an incredible role model and has inspired me greatly throughout the years.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
Focusing on psychiatric disorders, I think the most important breakthrough in our understanding of mental illness is that most mental illnesses are highly influenced by genetic factors. This is important because it moves us out of the dark ages of blaming people, their parents, usually their mothers or alternatively an exclusive focus on their environments. Understanding the genetics of psychiatric disorders will help us understand more about the subtle environmental factors that contribute to them. We know that certain environmental factors can create mental illness. For example, risk for psychiatric disorder increases among the less privileged in our society. We also know that people develop mental illness in fairly typical environments.

As a scientist, I believe there is a tremendous amount to be gained by understanding the neurobiology of psychopathology. This presents a tractable set of problems. Once we understand the genetic factors, we will be able to figure out what biological processes those genetic factors play a role in and create new proteins and molecules to help restore some of the lost function. In addition, we know there are people who carry genetic risks and never develop the related disorders. The reasoning behind this is that there may need to be multiple genetic risks or certain environmental triggers present. We believe there is a very good chance we can figure out the environmental risks that go with these genetic risks, because they do go hand in hand.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy spending time socializing with family and friends. I am an ardent bird watcher and enjoy gardening and reading.

6. Why science?
I was encouraged as a young person to think for myself. I attended a primary school that was designed for “gifted” underachievers and had an enriched curriculum. I instinctively gravitated towards McMaster for residency training which in the very early days of its residency training program in psychiatry was very similar to my original elementary school experience. This allowed me to hang out with many wonderful scientists who increased my ardour to think for myself and encouraged me to train myself to be a scientist. That is why I spent four years doing post-doctoral training and ended up in research. Here at SickKids, we have a similar environment. We have developed a very collaborative, trusting and open environment amongst the scientists which is seen in our accomplishments.

7. Why SickKids?
I wanted to come back to Canada for family reasons and realized that SickKids was the country’s leading academic child health centre. SickKids was and still is one of the most important hospitals in North America and globally. While the department of psychiatry here is small, it is made up of terrific people and has many excellent programs. SickKids is a very stable working environment and I have many wonderful colleagues within various departments.

I think the field of child psychiatry has a very bright future because more and more people are realizing that mental health problems are the most common source of impairment and health care cost in our community, and the most common cause of death in young people. Mental illnesses are complex disorders but we now have the tools to make a difference in our understanding of these disorders. This is a great opportunity for scientific discovery and an opportunity for SickKids to have an impact on public health. We can be leaders locally and globally by putting scientific and clinical resources into helping resolve mental health issues. I think that the administration of the Research institute, Dr. Rossant, and all the people around her would agree that the stars are aligned at SickKids for this kind of future in research.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
People still doubt that psychiatric disorders are real and think that disorders, ADHD in particular, are fabricated by drug companies to generate profits. I think there is still a tendency to minimize the reality and significance of these kinds of conditions. We have a long way to go in fighting the stigma around mental illness. An important thing we can do here at SickKids is to be leaders, so that when we profile our patients, we profile ones that have been treated successfully for OCD or ADHD or are doing a little bit better with their autism. Even though many complicated problems are associated with the mental illness stigma, we have to put our clinical and scientific resources into alleviating these problems.

9. What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading a very fascinating, yet terrifying book called The Ministry of Special Cases written by an incredible author, Nathan Englander. The story takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I recently discovered that I have a second cousin that happens to live in Buenos Aires.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
It is very hard work and you need to be prepared for disappointment and setbacks. The highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low. You definitely end up with more highs than lows if you can survive in the business.

You need to find yourself good colleagues, good teachers and good students. You learn a lot from your teachers, you learn more from your colleagues but you learn most from your students.

It is important to spend time picking a good problem. A good piece of advice for a student who has not made a definite career decision is to read Eric Kandel’s book called In Search of Memory. He spent a lot of time locating his research interests in the context of his own personal development and environment. Kandel also spent a lot of time trying to decide what way to go about studying the biology of memory, in a very abstract way.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
The SickKids Centre for Research and Learning means a lot to me. The community and the institution have made a huge commitment to SickKids and people have been tremendously generous. It will be a great opportunity for scientists who are now in MaRS, on Edward Street and on Dundas Street, to relocate to a central campus. Bumping into people in the hallway is incredibly important in what we do and I think the Centre for Research and Learning is going to facilitate all of that. So I do hope, even if a lot of my lab has to stay over here because of the clinical work that we do, that some of us will have touchdown space in the new centre so we can rub shoulders better with our colleagues in other research departments.

July 2012

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