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About the Institute

Profile of Julie Brill

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Dr. Julie Brill

By: Katrina King

Dr. Julie Brill, PhD

  • Senior Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I grew up in Virginia and went to a small liberal arts college near Philadelphia called Swarthmore College for my undergraduate degree in biology. I then took a year off and worked at a lab at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) before attending graduate school in biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I completed my post-doctoral training at Stanford University and spent several years as a visiting post-doctorate in Seattle. Although I was eventually led to Toronto, I was able to experience many places in the United States, including the east coast and west coast.

2. What are you researching right now?
My lab uses the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model for understanding animal development and human disease. Although they don’t look anything like humans, flies are a really cool tool because their genes are so similar to those in humans. This means they can be used to understand fundamental biological processes. My lab works on cytokinesis which is the process of how cells divide. It involves studying how one cell can end up as two cells, how a fertilized egg is transformed into a person or how to make an egg or sperm. We also study how cells become specialized to carry out particular functions in development. For example, we examine salivary gland cells that have to secrete a glue protein. This glue protein is naturally very sticky so that the pupal case (the cocoon) of the fly can stick onto a solid surface and the adult fly can develop. We also study the pigment granules that give eyes their colour. These are very similar to the pigment granules in our skin that give our skin its colour.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?
Since I am a geneticist by training, I think my all-time-favorite scientist is Gregor Mendel. It is really amazing that someone could take something as simple as pea plants and look at the traits that were segregating to discover the basis of heredity or, in other words, how traits are inherited. Another favorite scientist is Thomas Hunt Morgan who, more than 100 years ago, started the fly room at Columbia University in New York City. In his fly room, he founded fruit fly genetics and, with the help of his colleagues, figured out the chromosomal basis of inheritance. Together, they figured out that genes are actually on chromosomes that are passed on to offspring. I would argue that his hard work paid off when he received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1933 for figuring out how inheritance works in the fly.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?
It is hard to pick just one. However, I think one of the most fundamental scientific breakthroughs affecting biology in the last century was the clear demonstration showing that DNA is the material that carries our genes. There were two groups that contributed to this breakthrough. Avery–MacLeod–McCarty was one group who demonstrated that DNA encodes the genetic information in bacteria. They did a clever experiment; showing showed that they could extract a substance that would change live bacteria. Another pair contributing to this breakthrough was Hershey–Chase who showed that DNA was the genetic material in viruses that attack bacteria.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have two kids, ages 6 and 12, who are always great fun! They keep me busy, and I tend to spend a lot of time with them outside the lab. I also really enjoy music, whether it’s singing and playing guitar or playing piano. I appreciate my passion for music but when I just need time to relax I enjoy picking up a good book.  

6. Why science?
My parents were both trained as physicists so science was constantly around me as a child. The thing that pushed me to biology was when I was in grade three and my parents bought me a set of 50 microscope slides that I was able to examine with my curious eyes. My dad brought home a microscope for me to use and, as I sat and stared at the slides, I remember thinking that the biological samples were so beautiful. At that moment, I wanted to study them and understand how they were built. In school, I did a lot of different things that had nothing to do with biology and in my undergraduate studies I thought I was going to do something outside of the biology field. That was until I decided to take an introductory biology course. The course reaffirmed my love for biology, setting me on my career path.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids was the first place I applied for because I had heard of a few people who were working here, such as Roderick McInnes and Howard Lipshitz. I also knew the science at SickKids was fantastic and had heard many declare Toronto as a wonderful city to live in. When I interviewed here, I loved it. I even brought a toonie home from the interview with me, thinking it would bring me good luck. I knew if they offered me a job I’d take it! As it turned out, it was many months of waiting. They were interviewing ten people and I was only the third. It was a little bit of a wait but they offered me the job and I delightedly accepted. I have been at SickKids now for over ten years, and absolutely love it!

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
I wouldn’t say there are many controversial questions in my field right now but I can tell you about a significant question occupying our thoughts. We struggle learning about how cells become specialized to carry out particular functions. This includes questions such as: Why does a sperm cell become a sperm? Why does a cell that makes pigment granules make pigment granules? What are the processes in that cell enabling it to form a specialized organ that carries out a particular function needed in the body during development and what if something goes awry in some kind of disease state?  I think those are questions motivating my lab. I wouldn’t say this is controversial but the area we focus on; the role of cellular membranes in these processes is an unusual aspect.

9. What are you reading right now?
I read a lot of scientific papers. I am currently writing a review article and reading various papers for it. When I’m not reading science-related material, I like to read novels. I don’t have much time to sit down and read them properly so I end up reading them very slowly. Recently, I seem to choose books with a tiger theme. I read a book called The Tiger by John Valiant who is probably best known for writing The Golden Spruce which has won many awards including the Governor General's Literary Award. The Tiger is an amazing story about man versus nature in the far east of Russia. It is an incredible book. Sticking to this Tiger theme, I also started reading a book entitled The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. It is a really interesting portrait of the Balkans and its years of conflict.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
Do it if you really love it! If doing research is your passion, you should go for it. It’s a tremendously tough career. You can encounter long hours, stumbling blocks and sometimes failed experiments but the payoffs are amazing. There are not many careers allowing you to focus on something you want to be thinking about all the time while getting paid for it. This is the real pleasure of doing research. It is very rewarding but you have to be in it for the long haul.

11. What does the Research & Learning Tower mean to you?
I think it is great!  My lab is currently situated amongst people working in the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology program. This is wonderful because we work on fruit flies, and a lot of the labs around us also work on model organisms. This set-up is great to talk to other colleagues but the research in my lab has moved in the direction of cell biology and I recently joined the Cell Biology program. Since many people in that program are in the McMaster building, once the Tower is built, it will be wonderful to be in the same building as them. I will be able to go upstairs or downstairs to talk to them, rather than having to go down the street. I think it will cement the interactions I have with many colleagues here at SickKids. It will be great to run into people in the elevator and say hello.

July 2011

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