Spotlight on Dr. Stephen Scherer

Spotlight on Dr. Stephen Scherer

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By: Yekta Dowlati

Photograph courtesy of The Hospital for Sick Children

Dr. Stephen Scherer has recently been selected as a Nobel-class citation laureate in physiology and medicine by Thomson Reuters, and is noted by Mclean’s magazine as being among the 50 most powerful people in Canada. He is an astonishing individual who leads one of the busiest laboratories in our nation. Scherer is the Director of The Centre for Applied Genomics, at The Hospital for Sick Children and the Director of McLaughlin Centre at the University of Toronto. He is famous for his work on the genetic underpinnings of autism, which includes the role of copy number variations (CNV)—the deletion or duplication of genes in sections of DNA.

Born and raised in Windsor, Scherer was a highly competitive hockey and baseball player. It wasn’t until 11th grade and reading The Double Helix by James Watson that he became interested in science. He attended the University of Waterloo, learning molecular biology. Scherer grew up in the era where researchers were starting to discuss the seminal concepts surrounding the human genome project. He explains, “I thought, where in Canada can I go to graduate school and perhaps contribute to this field? And I ended up at the University of Toronto.” There were very few researchers at the time that both satisfied the necessary qualifications and had an interest in this bourgeoning field, and SickKids was the ideal institution to conduct this research. Scherer worked under the supervision of Professor Lap-Chee Tsui (who later discovered the cystic fibrosis gene) and completed his PhD in the Molecular Genetics Department. As stated by Scherer, “We ended up contributing probably more than any other group in the world on mapping and sequencing of chromosome 7, which we eventually collaborated on with Craig Venter and Celera Genomics and ended up publishing a massive paper in 2003.” He also established the Genome Centre at SickKids with Professor Lap-Chee and has been directing it for almost 20 years. He explains, “All of the major discoveries we have done happened with the help of our trainees who came here because they wanted to work in such as exciting environment. Based on our discoveries and publication track record, I think we have accomplished what I had set out to do, which was to establish in Canada a significant genomics effort.”

Scherer’s most rewarding part of his job is when someone in his group presents a new set of data, commenting, “I still pride myself that I sit down with my students and post-docs, look at data and analyze it together and exchange ideas.”

He considers the highlight of his career the paper they published in 2003 on chromosome 7: “Although not cited a lot, it was the basis of everything we have done since. It was that paper that gave us the first hint that the phenomena of copy number variation existed.”

Scherer is also the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. When he received an email from Thomson Reuters about the Nobel- class citation laureate ranking, he didn’t think it was important: “I almost deleted it. When I found out the email was not a hoax and I was actually in the ‘Hall of Laureates’, I almost dropped off my chair”. He believes that in science you always feel young—there is always someone telling you are wrong or that rejects your work: “To see your name on the list with giants of science was unbelievable, suggesting that your work is actually very important. Just to have a Canadian on the list is huge because there’s been an incredible investment in science.” He continues, “It’s something you never think about it till you get it. It’s just a great honor.”

Scherer stated that when he started his own laboratory, the gene sequencing technology was antiquated. Now researchers have the option to sequence the entire genome in a single experiment: “It’s probably as good as it’s going to get, we just have to be clever to figure out what it means. That’s essentially what we are going to do for the next 10 years.” Also, being the director of Autism Speaks Ten Thousand Genomes Program (AUT10K), Scherer is currently collaborating with Google and Autism Speaks to store data on the Google Cloud Platform and establish an open resource database to support autism research.

Scherer considers science very competitive: “If you want a career in science, it should be your passion. Most of your experiments will fail, papers and grants will get rejected, but you have to be stubborn and persistent, because you will eventually get wiser and that’s when you start to see success.” He suggests that graduate students should be well-rounded, with strong communication and written skills, which can be accomplished by reading papers both in their own area and the broader scientific field. He suggests that students should have strong statistical knowledge and should be a keen and active learner: “Watch you supervisors and committee members, learn their good and bad habits and learn your own strengths and weaknesses and continually build from these. Work hard. Over the years, I have met about 15 Nobel Prize winners and they are typically the hardest working people of the lot—smart too.”