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