Q. What first got you interested in the sciences and specifically in animal biology?
A. I first became interested in animal biology because in Alberta (where I grew up) the environment is very prominent; you have huge mountains that contain animals living in extreme environments. As a result, one immediately thinks about adaptation in that context. I was also very interested in behaviour; mostly why human behaviour and animal behaviour could be dysfunctional, and how humans or animals have the same reaction to the same stimuli. It is essentially a developmental question. How can you reliably make a brain so that it functions the same way each time? How do you build a brain so that it can reliably perform those same specific functions even though it has never encountered those stimuli before?
As an undergrad I was asking why the brain can reliably produce certain behaviours and why they can reliably do the wrong thing. I wanted to know why we have behavioural malfunction. To find the answers to this question, I took anthropology courses, physiological psychology courses, and biology courses. It was finally the biology courses that had the traction for me to pursue these interests.
Q. What interested you/how did you get into lab research?
A. One luxury of going to school in Alberta (at the time) was that there were more undergraduate labs and they were better equipped. I had a lot of rewarding hands on physiology labs as an undergraduate. The physiology labs really caught my imagination because you could do an experiment and get your results within the same day. This got me interested in neurophysiology. I left the undergraduate program looking at the neurophysiology of behaviour. I was interested in understanding more about how single cells work in a circuit to produce behaviours. How these circuits are built to make behaviour has always been my background question.
Q. What did you do after your undergraduate degree? (Tell me a bit about your graduate career)
A. After I graduated from the University of Calgary, I did a Master’s degree at U of T with Harold Atwood, one of Canada’s premier synaptic physiologists. I then joined the Playfair Neuroscience program, a neuroscience unit based out of Toronto Western hospital (since dissolved), which was the hot new program for young students to be recruited to at the time. There, I was able to work with state of the art software for building 3 dimensional models of nerve circuits using serial electron microscopy, a technique that was ahead of its time. We did things that had never been done before. Those projects led me to ask the question of how nerve cells differentiate. As a result, I became interested in developmental science.
Using the serial EM system, I came up with quantitative models of how the cytoskeleton regulated cell shape, which had not been done before. I wanted to get a better idea of the molecules involved in this process. However, the EM system did not allow us to look at the molecules themselves. I wanted a molecular approach. This is when I became attracted to the fly system.
For my postdoc, I chose Drosophila, which was just becoming a developmental genetic model. I built models for growth cones, and through this, discovered the role of the glial cells in positioning growth cones and their involvement in growth cone guidance. This was a major discovery for me in my post doctoral career. For the next 10 – 15 years I continued to study glial cells asking the questions “What cues do they provide to nerve cells to support them, guide them and modulate their genetic differentiation?”.
Q. What are you currently working on /what are the big questions you are trying to answer in your lab?
A. The driving question of my research is, “How do you build a brain?”. How is it that a Purkinje cell in a fish or in a whale can have the same general architecture, connectivity and similar physiology? How is this done taking into account different body temperatures, different life spans and different rates of development? How is it that all of those variables impinge and still, you can make the same cell and the same circuit? These are still the overriding questions for me today in my research and in developmental neuroscience. How do you make a system so robust that through all of the evolutionary divergence you can still preserve the same mechanism and structure?
One of the most interesting molecules that I have studied for neuron glial communication is Slit. I was one of the co-discoverers of how Slit works (as a repellent molecule for axon guidance). However, the system was too complex to study in the nervous system. That is when I became attracted to the heart. When the heart is developing it only has two cell types. Slit is important for guiding migration, as a polarity cell factor, similar to axon guidance, as well as morphogenesis (in the heart Slit is involved in tube formation whereas in the CNS it is forming a synapse). So the cells are guided by the same molecule, but the heart provides a much simpler/easier model to study.
Additionally, I’m looking at heart growth and heart aging, as these are very relevant topics for health issues related to disease and this is where a lot of public interest lies. Essentially, my work examines remodelling of tissue of any kind through studying the cell surface, Slit, Integrins, extracellular matrix composition/turnover and the proteins involved.
Q. You teach a very interesting undergrad course called, How science speaks to power. Can you tell me why you chose to create this class and what it is about?
A. How science speaks to power is a 4th year course that I created because I sensed that students were leaving university without having a critical understanding of science literature. The intent is to look at what the social mechanism of developing scientific consensus is. How do we come to accept something as scientifically supported. And from there, how does that consensus then become translated into policy? There are a lot of impediments to this process (political or otherwise). Whether science is adequate and whether it is objective. It all comes down to certainty and risk. Science accepts high risk while policy hates risk; they want certainty. It is a very interesting course to teach.
Q. Do you teach graduate level courses (for those MiNDS students who may not be aware)?
A. Yes, I do. I teach Biology 762, which is a seminar-based developmental biology course. The students examine at least 2 model systems that use genetic tools in developmental biology. This includes, for example, mice and zebrafish. And then the final project for the course is a research proposal that the students write using one of the two models that they focused on during the term. This course is typically offered in the fall term! You can look forward to it!
And then I, along with Dr. da Silva and Dr. Gillespie, teach Biology 780 advanced microscopy, which is being offered this term. It goes through confocal microscopy, immunofluorescence microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, and transmission electron microscopy.
Q. What tips would you give to students at the beginning of their graduate careers?
A. Well let’s see, the first thing I would say is get a supervisory committee that works! (laughs). Seriously, you must absolutely be able to turn to other people on your committee for advice. Also, there shouldn’t be too close a relationship between those on your supervisory committee, be it intellectual or otherwise because you want INDEPENDENT SOURCES of advice. Next, don’t be afraid to USE your committee. Many students fear the judgement of their committee but really most would appreciate being sought out for advice and would be able to give you that independent advice/feedback that you seek.
Networking, of course, is important at the beginning of your graduate career, the other thing is to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility that grad school extends to you. You’ll never get it again so try and get out there, go to seminars, take classes or do things that the rigidity of an undergraduate schedule never allowed you to do!
Lastly, remind yourself why you are in grad school and constantly update your CV! What skills can you put on there? What experiences? Volunteer work, skills in and outside of the lab, it’s not just about publications.
Q. What about writing for the MiNDS program newsletter?
A. Yes (laughs)! Especially anything science communication related. As a scientist you need to be able to communicate the work that you are doing effectively. These things all pay off at some time or another.
Q. What tips would you give to students, undergrad and grad alike, that are contacting potential supervisors/PIs?
A. Look up the papers of their work and have an idea about where the work is going. Be able to have a conversation about the research. Also, express an interest in how the lab works. Every student should meet the lab before they sign on. Be proactive and plan ahead. And lastly, watch those scholarship deadlines!
Q. It sounds like you have a very busy schedule between teaching, research and chair responsibilities. How do you spend, what I can only image, is a very little amount of spare time?
A. (laughs). At home, I like to relax by cooking, and at work, I de-stress by swimming. I love to swim!
Thank you for your time Dr. Jacobs!