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About the Institute

Profile of Paul Delgado Olguin

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Dr. Paul Delgado Olguin

By: Justin Faiola

Dr. Paul Delgado Olguin, PhD

  • Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am originally from Mexico and I studied biology with a specialization in human genetics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), located in Mexico City. UNAM is one of the most important universities in Latin America and is a beautiful place to study. After completing my PhD with work on myogenic transcriptional regulation at UNAM, I moved to Canada to come to SickKids and then to the U.S. to complete my postdoctoral fellowship at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of San Francisco.    

2. What are you researching right now?
We are interested in uncovering the processes that regulate cardiovascular development. The cardiovascular system is the first to function during mammalian development and is required for embryogenesis to take place but despite its importance, how it forms is not completely understood.

The formation of the cardiovascular system is a very complex process where many things can go wrong. For instance, defects in regulation of gene expression very early during the heart’s developmental processes results in congenital heart defects, which are the most prevalent cause of disease in newborns. Therefore, understanding how the heart forms is very important, as it allows us to understand how these defects can arise and think of ways to prevent or counteract their effects.

We are interested in the molecular mechanisms that regulate cardiovascular development, with particular interest in the epigenetic processes. Epigenetics refers to processes that affect how a gene is expressed but are not encoded in the gene sequence. Epigenetic processes are very important, as they could mediate the negative effects of exposure to external stimuli, like environmental factors, on the developing cardiovascular system, and thus could contribute to disease.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Charles Darwin is probably at the top of my list because of the impact of his observations on the way we perceive life, but Louis Pasteur is one of my scientific heroes. I often think about his widely-known experiments that disproved spontaneous generation of life. This was a very important discovery because during the nineteenth century, the idea of spontaneous generation of life was widely accepted. Pasteur disproved his detractors by conducting an experiment with a long neck flask that prevented dust particles from reaching the organic material inside the flask. When the organic material did not generate any organisms unless the flasks were broken open, it became clear that the production of new living organisms comes only from other living things (biogenesis) and not spontaneous generation. This experiment, along with many others conducted by Pasteur, strengthened other theories like Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
I would initially say the discovery of DNA or the establishment of evolution as a theory; however there are so many discoveries and breakthroughs that are interconnected, and many have pushed the boundaries of knowledge and have shaped our society. For example, the discovery of DNA was groundbreaking, but one could argue that discovery alone means nothing without the discovery of how its encoded information is translated into function. For that matter, you could safely say that discovering how the information encoded in DNA is expressed is just as relevant as the discovery of DNA itself. That is why Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod are my other scientific heroes. They won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of how genes are activated and regulated, as well as how the expression of a gene responds to external stimuli. As you can see, it’s very hard to just point to one scientific breakthrough because so many have had monumental impact and have led to the discovery of the next major breakthrough.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I enjoy being with my family. My wife, daughter and I enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and fishing. We have two dogs and we like taking them for walks on the many trails in Toronto. Both of our dogs are quite big so we need to keep them active. It’s really the perfect excuse to get out there and go for long walks on Toronto’s beautiful trails. When I’m not spending time outdoors with my family, I also enjoy writing and reading.

6. What are you reading right now?
At the moment I am reading two books. One of them is a book called Abominable Science, which was actually kind of disappointing, as I initially thought it was going to discuss the biological and psychological basis for why humans tend to believe in supernatural phenomena. The book discusses the history of cryptozoology, the study of unknown, mythical creatures like the Lochness Monster and the Yeti. Even though it was a little disappointing, the book was still interesting because it gives a historic explanation to why people started to believe in these creatures. It explains what evidence cryptozoologists used for the basis of their arguments and how serious researchers have debunked this evidence. It shows how science is used to find the truth and how a lack of critical perspective can lead to a misinterpretation of evidence.

I am also re-reading The Logic of Life, by Francois Jacob, which is one of my favourite books. I first read this book in high school but I decided to re-read it. I like to re-read old books, as I have found that most of the time I end up having a very different perspective than before. However, The Logic of Life is different. When I first read the book it completely blew me away, and reading it now I am still blown away – it’s probably my favourite book.

Even though it can get busy being a researcher, I make time to read on the subway and at night, especially when I have had a tough day and I need to ease my mind from what I was dealing with earlier.

7. Why science?
When I was a child, I was always very curious and I loved all animals. I remember being in my backyard when I was younger spending hours watching insects and small animals. As I watched these insects and animals I started to have so many question like, “I never see these animals eat, what do they eat? Where do they live?” I really wanted to know the answers to these questions so I would often follow these insects and animals until I could find out these answers.

As I continued to grow, my father loved to take me outdoors so I could come into close contact with nature. This made me appreciate the greatness of nature and my curiosity to learn was fueled even further. During high school, I had a teacher who really showed me what science had to offer. He realized I was very curious so he told me I should consider pursuing a science-related career. At the time, I didn’t know of many science-related careers so he suggested biology, medicine or chemistry. After looking at my options, I followed my interest in conducting experiments and answering questions about life through my own experimentation, so I decided to study biology. It was definitely my parents and my high school teachers who sparked my passion for science.

8. Why SickKids?
I had the opportunity to come here as a postdoctoral fellow for one year and I found the close connection of basic research with the hospital and clinical research very appealing. I figured it would give me the opportunity to work with clinicians in the hospital to have an opportunity to eventually translate my research from the lab to the bedside. In addition, the top quality research performed here, the supportive and collaborative environment, and the stellar reputation of SickKids as an institution were critical factors in my decision to conduct my research here.

9. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
That is a tough one. The biggest issue is that we want to understand how the heart is made. The heart is a very complex organ that is made of many different cells, and the processes regulating the formation of cardiac muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) are less understood as compared with other cells. For instance, people can make skeletal muscle cells from a wide variety of cells such as neurons or skin cells by inducing the expression of a single gene, which acts like a master inducer of skeletal muscle formation. This opened many possibilities to understand how skeletal muscle cells are made. In contrast, scientists in the cardiac field have been trying to understand how to make cardiac muscle cells for quite some time.

Knowledge of the some of the processes that regulate formation of the heart during embryogenesis allowed, researchers to figure out that you have to induce a combination of genes to convert skin cells into cardiomyocyte-like cells. However, it has been shown that these cells are not completely identical to fully functional cardiomyocytes. Unfortunately, we still do not know what is required to make a fully developed and functional cardiomyocyte, which limits the possibility of making cells that could be potentially used in therapies aimed at restoring cardiac function.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You have to be passionate, you have to really enjoy what you are researching and you need to have perseverance in order to pursue a research career. Becoming a scientist is very competitive so it is important that you never doubt your abilities if this is truly the career you want.  There will be many difficulties that you will encounter on the path to research but if you stay strong and keep at it, you can definitely make it. Despite the difficulties, science is highly rewarding. There are not many activities that provide the opportunity of finding something that could benefit people’s life for the first time and give it to the world in your own words.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
This building means a lot to me. I like to think that I form part of the efforts of the PGCRL in the generation and diffusion of knowledge oriented towards alleviating the burden of disease and impact on the broader population. Uniting the entire Research Institute in the PGCRL is key to this goal, as it makes it easier for people to connect. The interactions facilitated in the PGCRL are accelerating the generation and exchange of new ideas and technologies. The PGCRL also gives more accessibility to labs with different expertise and equipment, which is very important for efficiency and optimizing the learning experience. I feel very proud to conduct research in this building. 

When I first came to SickKids as a postdoctoral fellow, the prospect of building a new research tower where all researchers work together was an exciting thought. Now that it’s happened I am very happy to say I am a part of it. I feel fortunate that can enjoy all of the benefits that resulted from the work, time and dedication of many people who made this building possible. I am proud that I can contribute to the growing effort and be a part of a very important team committed to improving lives.

May 2013

Scientific profile