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About the Institute

Profile of Sheri Shojaie

Photo of Sheri Shojaie
Sheri Shojaie

By: Anne Coffey

Sharareh (Sheri) Shojaie

  • PhD student, Translational Medicine
  • Department of Physiology, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born in Tehran and my family moved to Toronto when I was 10. I attended high school in North York and completed an undergraduate degree in human biology at the University of Toronto (U of T). During my senior years as an undergraduate student I was exposed to research in two separate settings where I completed independent projects looking at changes in animal behaviour and gene expression in response to changes in the environment. I found it very interesting that an external stimulus, however seemingly inconsequential, could affect an organism at the molecular level and at the whole-body physiological level. 

My excitement for research in developmental biology was spurred by excellent lectures in my embryology courses and the idea that any complex organism was once but a single cell responding to cues from its surrounding environment in a tightly regulated system. After graduating in 2010, I started my graduate work in the Department of Physiology at U of T under the supervision of Dr. Martin Post in the area of fetal lung development and regenerative medicine. I’m now starting my fourth year in the PhD program.  

2. What are you researching right now?
The overall objective of my research is to develop novel therapies for lung tissue repair and replacement by directing the differentiation of stem cells to specialized lung cells. I’m interested in recreating what occurs naturally during development – the progressive push of stem cells to the lung lineage. There are different environmental cues that influence cell identity and our lab is interested in identifying what these are – with a particular focus on cell-matrix signaling during fetal lung development. In order to study cell-matrix signaling, I generate natural lung scaffolds that have been stripped of all the resident cells, which I can then repopulate with stem cells. I monitor the interaction of these cells with the matrix and promote their differentiation towards a lung cell type. The ultimate goal is to engineer segments of functional lung tissue that can be used for therapeutic purposes.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
Marie Curie – she was a trailblazer in so many aspects of her professional life. She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, despite not speaking a word of French when she moved there. Leading a life dedicated to research, she made numerous discoveries in the field of radioactivity making her the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, and the first to receive two in separate sciences. Her accomplishments, especially for that time, are very inspirational.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
From a global perspective, I believe it would be the discovery of the first antibiotic. The serendipitous discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming changed the study and treatment of infectious disease considerably, saving millions of lives from previously severe and incurable infections.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
One of my major interests outside of the lab is sports and fitness – I enjoy playing soccer, volleyball, long distance running, yoga and paddling. I find that being active is a must for me and without it I would be less productive in other aspects of my life – like research. I believe that regular physical activity keeps the brain functioning at its best. I also enjoy attending live performances. Whether it’s theater, ballet, opera, concerts, or stand-up comedy, I usually have a show lined up.

6. Why science?
Since childhood I had an experimental approach to life. Whether it was in the kitchen, backyard or school, I was always mixing things, or taking things apart, or playing with insects. I find science to be very rewarding. It gives me the opportunity to find answers to important unknown questions by looking closely at a specific phenomenon or by deciphering an elusive pathway – and that is exciting!

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is a great place to be for a researcher. It has the world-renowned scientists, dedicated clinicians, state-of-the-art facilities and the zeal and passion for making discoveries. SickKids understands the need and importance of research and as a graduate student here, I know that I’m learning and applying my knowledge in one of the best research institutes in the world.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
In the stem cell field, there is controversy surrounding induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) and their potential use in the clinic. The discovery of reprogramming somatic cells to pluripotent cells by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka has opened doors to patient-specific disease modeling and therapies, and circumvented ethical concerns surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells. However there are still questions regarding the real potential of these cells, and whether they can be fully differentiated and used as a safe therapeutic option in regenerative medicine – without leading to uncontrolled proliferation.

9. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Outliers by English-Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell. It’s an engaging sociological account of today’s success stories.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
It is important to talk to the people around you and have a collaborative attitude. It can take a long time and many unsuccessful attempts before you reach your research goals. Meeting new people and making friends will make your experience as a graduate student more enjoyable. Whether it’s emotional support or help with experimental questions there are always other trainees and investigators that are eager to help.

11. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
It means a lot. This building is designed to encourage collaborations that lead to discoveries. Having all of the researchers under one roof with open-concept research space will foster this and allow us to tackle our research questions together.

December 2013