Career Central, Interviews

A Conversation with Dr. Janet Rossant: Chief of Research & Biologist Extraordinaire

Dr. Rossant was the Chief of Research at the Hospital for Sick Children and is a Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Toronto. She discovered a type of stem cell type called the trophoblast, which among other achievements earned her the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for 2015.  

Why did you choose to study the life sciences?

“My interest in the life sciences really goes back to high school. I was always interested in science, just the discovery aspect and the fascination of trying to understand the world around us. I was interested in chemistry, not physics, biology, but I really got turned on to biology because of a very inspirational high school teacher. She recognized that I had potential and she gave me lots of books to read, she took us all on field trips into nature and various places that really engaged us in the fascination of life.”

What was your journey to becoming Chief of Research at SickKids?

“It is a tough road, but you have to have passion, and commitment. As you go down the pathway and you are starting to enjoy the science, there comes a time when you want to give back. First of all, anyone who is going into research should focus on the first few years, entirely on their research because that is what is most important. But, as you go forward, we do need people who can help direct and support research, and mentor young scientists, and to go down that path one step at a time is what I would say. Absolutely always get involved; you always want to be engaged with your fellow investigators, graduate students, and university department. Be useful, be on committees – but don’t over commit – and see what you like. Not everybody, by any means, is destined or should end up as an administrator. It is another set of skills that scientists are not generally trained to do, but maybe more of them should be trained. I never had any formal training, but maybe these days, at some point it is worth having an MBA along the way, if that is really the path you want to take. I would say, take it a step at a time and it is not a necessary step. Most Nobel Prize winners have never ran anything in their lives and they stuck with their science, so it really is a matter of what you like to do and what you find your skills are appropriate for.”

What advice would you have for students pursuing the sciences?

“Remember that we are in an amazing time for life science research. The tools and the technologies to explore nature, the applications of life science, and medicine in new and exciting ways are amazing. Explore, and take the opportunity, while you are an undergraduate, to explore as many different areas as you can and find out what you have a passion for and follow your passion. Your passion doesn’t necessarily have to take you in the academic route or the medicine route for that matter. Just exploring a scientific education is really important. We are in a technological age and we need an educated public who understands the issues of science and technology. We need an educated public service, we need educated health politicians, and we need educated journalists. We need to have an environment in which we, as a country, are educated about these strengths, challenges, and the applications of technology. Too often we hear, even apparently educated people, not understanding some of the implications of science. My favourite hobby is vaccinations. In Canada and elsewhere, there are many people who are highly educated, who do not want to vaccinate their children, despite the fact that the science is extremely strong, and the idea that this is dangerous has come from completely discredited work, and yet the highly educated people still are not able to evaluate properly, the scientific evidence. Science is training in being critical and being able to evaluate evidence. I’m very excited about the Liberal government’s mandate letters to their ministers, many of which talk about science, innovation, evidence, and that I think is what we want to see our politicians do, and we need to be making sure that the public, also is as far as possible, able to weigh the evidence and make the right choices.”