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About the Institute

Profile of Anne Wheeler

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Dr. Anne Wheeler

Dr. Anne Wheeler, PhD

  • Scientist, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) scholar, Neurosciences & Mental Health

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in Toronto and completed most of my studies here, although I left to do my undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal. After undergrad, I traveled through Asia, New Zealand, and North America for a couple of years. Along the way I realized what a great city Toronto is, and recognized the value of being close to family and friends, so I came back to do my PhD at the University of Toronto.  

2. What are you researching right now?
I am looking at the effects of traumatic brain injury in children and animal models. My past research has focused on how behaviour and cognition are emergent properties of brain networks by using brain-wide structural and functional imaging to examine these processes. I have examined memory, addiction, schizophrenia, and neurodevelopment in this context. My current research program here at SickKids examines how traumatic brain injury and brain damage affect networks in the brain and can lead to different outcomes associated with cognition, psychopathology, and behavioral disturbances.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
This is a tough question, but I would have to say Alexander Luria. He was a Russian neuropsychologist who was one of the early researchers that viewed brain function as emergent properties of circuits and networks. I think his ideas and models of the brain were ahead of his time.  

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
In my field of work, I think the most important breakthrough was the ability to conduct brain imaging in live humans, so the 70s and 80s, when MRI and CT scanning was developed, was an important era for scientific advancement in the field. There have been so many incremental improvements since then, and it has really influenced where we are today in terms of brain imaging. The other important aspect of that is the recent increase in computational power and the ability to not only collect large amounts of data but to also analyze and combine large data sets. I really think computing is driving the field forward in many ways.   

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I’m a mother, so I spend most of my time outside the lab with my family. I have a two-year-old and another on the way. When I do have time to myself, I enjoy cycling, snowboarding, scuba diving, and traveling. My husband and I try to take snowboarding and scuba diving trips, but it is much harder to do with a young family.

6. Why science?
I actually have a story for this one. When I was in grade five, my very stern teacher taught us a geography lesson in which some of the details contradicted the information I had in my encyclopedia at home. I remember working up the nerve to go and confront her about this. When I did, she sort of smiled, which was weird because she never smiled, and said “Never stop asking questions, Anne.” At the time, I was very unsatisfied with that answer because I didn't think it was possible for either a teacher or an encyclopedia to be wrong, so how do you reconcile these contradictions? But I took her advice and always kept asking questions, which naturally led to my interest in science. Pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, and now that I am, I really enjoy it and can't picture doing anything else.  

7. Why SickKids?
Because it’s a world-renowned hospital and research centre - it is an ideal environment for my research program. SickKids is especially good at supporting their scientists and research and giving them the tools they need in order to succeed. I am really lucky to have found a position here.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
This is another tough one, but I think that one of the biggest problems facing scientists in my area of work is the fact that nobody really knows what damage has been done to the brain in instances of mild brain injury such as concussions. Conventional imaging techniques that we use right now do not indicate any obvious damage to the brain. But some of these patients will go on to have a lot of cognitive problems, physical problems, behavioral issues. It is really a big challenge in the field right now to better describe the damage done to the brain. There certainly are more advanced ways to acquire and analyze MRIs now, and those may prove to be slightly more sensitive. Researchers are also looking for potential markers of brain damage in the blood, proteins that might be able to tell us something about damage and prognosis, perhaps in combination with neuroimaging.

9. What are you reading right now?
I just finished a really good book by Canadian author Joseph Boyden called “Three Day Road.” I discovered his writing this past summer, and I’ve read all three of his books in the past few months. I really liked “Three Day Road.” It is set partly in northern Ontario and partly in the trenches in WWI, and Boyden gives a really vivid description of both settings. I’m always looking for good stories to escape into.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
My advice would be to reach out and interact with other trainees and scientists as much as possible, because this is where you’re going to learn the most. It’s also probably where many of your future opportunities are going to come from. Building up a large network of colleagues and collaborators will open you up to new ideas and approaches.

11. What does the SickKids' Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL) mean to you?
I was a student at SickKids, before the PGCRL was built. I found that there were a lot of great labs, but they were spread out in different buildings around the downtown core and main hospital. With the PGCRL, I’ve been really impressed with how great it is to have most of the SickKids research together in this building, and to have common space where people can interact and collaborate. I really think that the success of modern science will involve having different types of expertise come together, both between different labs and having access to core specialized services.

December 2015

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