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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


U of T hosts ALS chair

By David Chilton
Special to The Sun

Professor Janice Robertson laughs easily about the smaller stuff of life: advancing age, British TV naturalist David Attenborough, the quality of newspapers, the charm of basset hounds.
University of Toronto Professor Janice Robertson, working out of the University of Toronto, is Canada Research Chair in the Molecular Mechanics of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

That's just as well. There can't be a lot of laughs in her laboratory at the University of Toronto where she is Canada Research Chair in the Molecular Mechanics of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a neuro-degenerative disease of the central nervous system that, she says, takes two to five years from diagnosis to death.

Robertson says she knew she wanted a career in science when she was growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland. "I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I liked nature, and David Attenborough and (botanist) David Bellamy. I was always interested in biology, but then became fascinated by biochemistry."

That fascination lead Robertson to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland for her Bachelor of Science degree and on to the University of London for her PhD. Following the completion of her PhD, she went on to post-doctoral research supported by the Wellcome Trust, a British charity that funds research into human and animal health.

Robertson started out researching Alzheimer's Disease at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and found some of the proteins she was working on in her Alzheimer's research had more relevance to ALS. That marked the start of her interest in ALS, as did working with a British neurologist who had his ALS clinic near the labs where she worked. There Robertson could see ALS patients coming in and out.

"It's a very horrible disease. The progression is very rapid. And I became more and more interested in (the patients') story, and also there was the fact that what I was working on had more relevance to their disease."

A Wellcome Trust Prize Travelling Fellowship brought Robertson to Canada to work with experts in ALS.

"I primarily came over here for two years," Robertson says. "That was in 1997, (but) I got completely engrossed in the work over here and have now set up my lab at University of Toronto."

Robertson came to U of T in 2003, after the two years she'd planned at McGill University in Montreal turned into a six-year stint.

Scientists of Robertson's calibre are in such demand that she could have picked her spot, but she says she came to Toronto principally because the Centre for Research into Neurodegenerative Diseases is here. It's the only one in Canada and there aren't any in Britain. Although there are several in the U.S., Robertson didn't want to move there.

"I like the scientific community here in Canada," she says. "I like Canadian society and (it) gives a lot of support to their scientists, whereas in these big institutions in the States, it tends to be one head and a lot of plebs (lesser mortals) underneath. Here I felt I could progress much better."

Another reason for Robertson setting up her lab in Toronto was that she wanted a close relationship with the Canadian ALS Society, which has its headquarters here.

Given that a diagnosis of ALS is always terminal, Robertson is frequently asked about a cure. It could be around the corner or it could be years away, she says. Nevertheless, there are more people working on ALS -- also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease -- than ever before.

Although Robertson says she doesn't want to seem like a workaholic, it's apparent she spends a lot of time in her lab. But when she isn't surrounded by test tubes and microscopes, she's reading biographies and taking care of Celeste, her basset hound. And perhaps, given the popularity of his programs on TVO and elsewhere, catching up with old inspiration David Attenborough.

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