Postdoctoral Fellows and Research Associates Gather for Annual Symposium

Dec 6, 2017
Jovana Drinjakovic
Earlier this week, Donnelly Centre postdoctoral fellows (PDF) and research associates (RA) came together for a day-long event to present their research and foster collaborations between labs. Held annually, this year’s symposium was organized by members of the Donnelly Centre PDF/RA Team: Punit Saraon, Himanshu Kaul, Brock Harpur and Nick Stepankiw.


Professor Hannes Röst The keynote speaker was Professor Hannes Röst, who recently joined the Centre as faculty with a joint appointment in the Department of Molecular Genetics.

Röst stressed the importance of developing new tools which can detect thousands of molecules in the body, such as proteins or metabolic products in the blood for example. Only by making such measurements over time will we be able to reach the goal of personalized medicine, which is to tailor risk assessment and treatment for each person individually, he said. Röst then went on to describe his own research in this area, including measurements of thousands of molecules found in pregnant women’s blood and which Röst showed can accurately predict foetus gestational age during the course of pregnancy.

Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of research in the Centre, other speakers covered a range of topics, from studies of basic biology in simple organisms such as yeast and worms, to engineering human cells for immunotherapy, to building credit card-sized devices for medical testing.

One of the main questions explored was how to uncover gene function that is detectable only under certain conditions. Vincent Messier (Andrews lab) and Javier Diaz, previously in the Roth lab and now in the Emili lab, approached this issue in yeast cells using a robotic set-up to study cells under many different condition and a batch method that relies on barcoded yeast strains, respectively. Also working in yeast cells, Tina Sing (Brown lab) talked about her discoveries on how cells safeguard their genomes to keep their structure intact, whereas Jolanda van Leeuwen (Boone lab) presented her research on finding the so-called suppressor genes, genes that can mask the harmful effects of damaging mutations elsewhere in the genome.

van Leeuwen, who has been appointed assistant professor at the University of Lausanne, recently shared her insights on what it takes to move on from postdoc to facutly which you can read about here.

Jolanda van Leeuwen presenting her research

Mark Spensely (Fraser lab) described his work on developing a new imaging technology that can keep track of thousands of moving worms and can be used to investigate how the nervous system works in an intact animal.

Michael Aregger (Moffat lab) talked about using the gene editing CRISPR technology to hunt for genes that help cancer cells thrive but are not essential to healthy cells—targeting these genes by drugs should lead to more precise therapies that kill only cancer cells.  Zhong Yao and Punit Saraon from the Stagljar lab presented discoveries of potential new cancer drug targets and drug molecules, respectively, with Saraon’s work on track to enter a clinical trial next year.

Jingwen Song (Greenblatt lab) described her approach to shining light on the largest and possibly most elusive group of human proteins known as C2H2-zinc fingers and Jasty Singh (Zandstra lab) talked about novel technologies that could boost the immune system in patients following radiation and blood stem cell transplants. Tanya Narahari (Wheeler lab) presented her progress in building a microfluidics device for a quick detection of malaria antibodies that could be used to diagnose the disease in tropical rural communities.

Before the speakers and members of the audience moved on to a networking reception, symposium organizers Punit Saraon and Himanshu Kaul presented Nika Shakiba, Tina Sing and Brock Schuman with awards for best talks given during the bi-weekly seminars, which run throughout the academic year and are also organized by the PDF/RA Team.

By all accounts, the event was a success. Now it’s time to start preparing for the next one, the organizers said.

For more event photos, check out our Flickr gallery.

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