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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 6 | Jun. 2, 2005

Stopping Disease

Bacterial disease expert makes lab team a priority

By Hilary Thomson

A combat sport is how UBC bacterial disease researcher Brett Finlay describes the competitive world of science research.

So it’s not surprising he believes a big part of mentoring is looking out for the 25 members of his lab.

“I try to identify lab members’ abilities and give them chances to use those skills in a supportive environment where they’re free to chase their ideas,” says Finlay, who is the Peter Wall Institute Distinguished Professor -- the university’s highest academic honour.

Recruited to UBC by the late Michael Smith, Nobel Laureate, Finlay counts among his mentors and role models his parents, both biologists; his PhD supervisor, Dr. William Paranchych; and his post-doctoral supervisor at Stanford University, Dr. Stanley Falkow.

Running a successful lab is an acquired skill, says Finlay, adding that he took business courses on motivation and conflict resolution to help him manage and mentor his talented team.

Communication is a major component of life in his lab, located in the Michael Smith Biotechnology Laboratory. When in town, he makes it a priority to meet with every lab member in half-hour sessions during the week. He also holds a formal weekly lab meeting where students and post-docs can practice presentation skills. In addition, he hosts a lab retreat every 18 months where members put forward their vision for where the work is going.

“At this stage, my contribution comes not so much from the papers I publish, but from the people I train -- that’s my job right now,” he says. He has adopted many of Smith’s mentoring techniques -- “giving me all that I needed, keeping distractions to a minimum and getting out of the way.”

Finlay says he’s very selective in taking on new lab members. He looks for independence, drive, and a well-rounded person -“no lab rats” -- who has interests that balance the demands of research.

Bruce Vallance came to the lab in 1999 as a post-doc. With his father, a biology teacher, Vallance spent a childhood collecting butterflies and frogs and believed his interest in biology would lead him to medicine. After his father’s death from cancer when Vallance was 16 years old, his interests shifted toward medical research and trying to understand what caused disease.

The 38-year-old is now an assistant professor of pediatrics and Canada Research Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology. An expert in developing models of disease that show how infection affects the intestinal tract and liver, his research is focused on the role of bacteria in causing Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) in children. IBDs, such as Crohn’s disease, cause intestinal tissue to become inflamed, resulting in chronic abdominal pain, cramping, fatigue and diarrhea.

He says his mentors, who include both Finlay and his PhD supervisor Dr. Steve Collins at McMaster University, showed him how to succeed in research.

“I learned from them how to get people, especially funding organizations, interested in the problems you’re studying,” he says. “From Brett I learned it’s important to get a running start.

If you can quickly get your ideas funded and recruit excellent people, that gives your research program real momentum and that’s one of the keys to success.” Vallance is the Children with Intestinal and Liver Disorders (CH.I.L.D.) Foundation’s Research Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology -- the first position of its kind in Canada. He supervises his own five-member lab at the B.C. Research Institute for Children’s and Women’s Health (BCRICWH). Vallance and several other pediatric gastroenterologists working at the institute comprise the fastest-growing pediatric gastrointestinal research group in Canada.

“I feel lucky to have worked with mentors who allowed me to try my own ideas,” says Vallance, who is also a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar. “While nobody’s ideas work all the time, you can’t be afraid of failure, you have to keep trying. Learning to have confidence in your own ideas is crucial to becoming a successful researcher, and when some crazy idea you dreamed up works, there’s nothing more exciting.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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