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About the Institute

Profile of Sean Egan

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Dr. Sean Egan

By: Elissa Hanna

Dr. Sean Egan, PhD

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

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I was born at Toronto General Hospital but at the age of six my family moved to Winnipeg, which is where I grew up. I got my B.Sc. and PhD degrees at the University of Manitoba. I did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute/MIT and then spent a year studying in London, England at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund/London Research Institute before joining SickKids in 1993.      

2. What are you researching right now?
We are focused on identifying the network of mutations that cooperate to induce cancer in cells from several organs. This is being done to determine how specific cancer gene networks drive specific pathological subtypes of cancer, and how these networks cause tumours to spread throughout the body. Ultimately, once identified, we will use information about these networks to design combination therapies, which should be more effective than single agent therapy.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
That is a difficult question. I guess I would say Aristotle, just because he systematized logic which has given everyone a way to distinguish good ideas from bad ones. Also, he was very interested in studying and classifying the biological world.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
Again, that is a pretty hard question, which I can’t really answer. For the sake of discussion, I’ll say the work of Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA is high on my list. She was the person who generated x-ray crystallographic data on DNA that was used by Watson and Crick to generate a model for DNA. This work really changed biology in a profound way.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
My family is number one. I love just hanging out with my wife and kids; going on holidays with them, going to sporting events together, teaching the kids about history, literature, science... I am also very interested in history, specifically the history of the Jewish people. I am not Jewish but I find their story to be inspiring.

6. Why science?
Science is a great way to ask questions and to spend your life searching for answers that can be passed onto posterity. We have all benefitted from the scholarship of the past. It is a real privilege to be involved in adding to that for the next generation. On a more basic level, it’s fun. Being a scientist is like playing “Clue” for a living.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is an amazing place to work. It’s an optimistic and collaborative workplace that is full of very accomplished individuals. Despite this, people are careful to check their egos. SickKids Research Institute has a fantastic culture. Everyone does their best to give each other advice on experiments, manuscripts, grant proposals... I have never been anywhere else with the synergy and positive feeling of SickKids.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
There is a lot of interest in determining the relationship between cancer stem cells and cells within a tumour that appear to be incapable of reforming a tumour (the non-cancer stem cells). Basically, it is important to know whether both cell types need to be treated or if therapy should just be focused on killing the cancer stem cells.  

9. What are you reading right now?
I am reading The Hebrew Republic by Eric Nelson, which is about how non-Jews started to learn Hebrew in the 1600s in an effort to understand the bible at a deeper level. This led to dramatic changes in the Christian world as they read opinions of Rabbis throughout the ages.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
If you will allow me, I have two pieces of advice for young people interested in biology. First, I strongly encourage them to become comfortable with both computer science and biology. In the future, there will be many people with expertise in each of these areas, but few people with both. Scientists, even today, need to be completely comfortable with large complex datasets and able to use computers to generate hypotheses. At the same time, success in medical science requires knowledge of the normal or pathological biological process in question.

Secondly, as science represents a very specialized career, many young people focus on the science at the expense of a more traditional liberal arts education. A successful scientist must be an excellent writer and public speaker. By learning these skills, a science student will also open more doors for themselves.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
This is going to be amazing for all of us. Once we are in the new tower, SickKids’ scientists will have so much more opportunity to interact and collaborate with each other. I am really looking forward to it because we have been away from the main hospital for a few years now, and there are many colleagues that I really don’t know well. Specifically, I am looking forward to interacting with many of the bioinformatics people. Also, the energy and sense of mission is so palpable in the hospital. I look forward to enhancing that connection when we all move into the new building.

April 2013

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