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About the Institute

Profile of Cynthia Hawkins

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Dr. Cynthia Hawkins

Dr. Cynthia Hawkins, MD, PhD

  • Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Principal Investigator, The Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumour Research Centre
  • Neuropathologist, Paediatric Laboratory Medicine
  • Associate Professor, Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology

1. Where are you from? Where did you study?
I grew up in Toronto and I did my medical school at the University of Western Ontario and then I did my residency training in Toronto and in Zurich.

2. What are you researching right now?
I study paediatric brain tumours, specifically Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a type of brain tumour that involves the brain stem. These tumours are malignant, very invasive and universally fatal. There hasn’t been a lot known about them since most of the research has been based on the assumption that the paediatric tumours are the same as the adult version.

In collaboration with my colleagues in neurooncology, we’ve set up an autopsy based series of clinical trials. Most of the time, DIPG cases are not biopsied, they are treated based on their clinical presentation and their radiology. Therefore, since we haven’t had a lot of tissue to study we haven’t known a lot about their biology and we haven’t really known how to treat them. During autopsy, we collect the tissue and freeze tumour tissue and other tissue so that we have the material and the agents to try and study the tumours. We started with microarray platforms then we moved on to look at expression, epigenetics and most recently whole genome sequencing. We started to find out a lot more about their biology and the differences between paediatric and adult tumours. We are trying to come up with better therapy options for these patients.

3. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
In terms of public health the most important scientific breakthrough is having immunization and antibiotics to treat infectious disease.

4. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I like bike riding, canoeing and spending time with my two kids.

5. Why science?
I have always liked science. I enjoy the scientific method, asking questions about how things work and thinking of an approach to answer the question by designing and performing experiments and getting the results. During my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to put that into practice and that was very exciting.

6. Why SickKids?
I was always interested in the paediatric aspects of neuropathology so, when I did my rotations at SickKids as a resident, I really enjoyed the experience. Paediatric disease is different from adult disease and therefore the work that we do at SickKids is very important.

7. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the controversies that we come up against is that traditionally we’ve categorized cancer and a lot of diseases in terms of their morphologic appearance, or what they look like under a microscope. Now, some people think that molecular diagnostics will be improved and I don’t really agree. In my opinion, molecular diagnosis will run into the same types of issues as morphological diagnosis. It will be a much more useful tool if it’s put into the context of what we already know about clinical behavior and the traditional classification of disease. Yes, molecular biology will revolutionize our field but is it really going to replace everything that we’ve done before? I don’t think so.

8. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Mortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is the story of the HeLa cells, or the first ‘immortal’ human cells grown in culture.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
A career in research requires a lot of determination. You have to be willing to stick with it and not take criticism and negative feedback personally and see beyond that to achieve your goal.

10. What does the SicKKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I think it will be great to have our researchers together under one roof. Right now, in MaRS, I’m with other brain tumour researchers and this is very effective for collaboration. I think the new building will make it even better. It will be much easier to interact with the different scientists and easier to get ideas from people who are doing something a little bit different from what you’re doing. The environment of interaction is even more important than all the fancy new tools that we will have access to.

July 2012

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