Passion, Pure Research and Happy Accidents

Pure research is best likened to solving one piece of a puzzle
Pure research is best likened to solving one piece of a puzzle

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 3 | Mar. 6, 2008

By Catherine Loiacono

Public universities are often recognized as a central hub for research — both pure and applied. Although much has been said about applied research in recent years, what does pure research really mean today? Why is it still such a fundamental cornerstone of universities?

As we celebrate UBC’s eighth Annual Research Week, we explore the importance of the most basic form of research, its value and implications.

“Pure,” “basic,” “curiosity-driven,” or “fundamental” are all terms used to describe research that is done for the sole purpose of following one’s passion and curiosity in the search for new knowledge — without a direct practical application in mind.

UBC Vice President, Research John Hepburn says, “We have attracted some of the top researchers in the world whose work is driven by discovery. UBC takes pride in creating an environment where researchers can pursue their curiosity and access the best facilities, because we recognize the importance it has in contributing to a greater global understanding.”

Pure research is entirely exploratory, advancing knowledge and theoretical understanding among variables. It is found in all faculties and can often lead to a significant discovery — or “happy accident” — which contributes to advancements in fields such as medicine and biotechnology.

For instance, Dr. Hugh Brock, Director of the UBC Genetics Graduate Program, discovered a protein that helped address untreatable childhood leukemias while studying the three-dimensional pattern formation of fruit fly wings. His research shows that the fly protein has a key role in promoting the activity of the leukemia protein, and provides unexpected insight into its function.

“One of the wonderful complexities of nature is our inability to predict what will turn out to be an important discovery,” says Brock. “That’s why curiosity driven research is so fruitful.”

Director of the Brain Research Centre, Dr. Max Cynader, works with many scientists who have made major scientific discoveries purely by accident. Says Cynader, “What I do know is to expect something revolutionary in the next five years in brain research, but I can’t tell you what it is going to be.”

Dr. Anthony Phillips and Dr.Yu Tian Wang, university professors and members of the Brain Research Centre, wanted to understand how the brain learns new things, specifically what molecular mechanisms underlie how we learn and make memories. The tools and drugs they developed for their study led them to discover a way to block the communication between brain cells that triggers drug cravings, a finding that could lead to new therapies to treat addiction and relapse as well as compulsive behaviours associated with schizophrenia.

Often times, the findings from basic research will be used by another group of researchers as a missing link to a significant discovery. Dr. Ann Marie Craig, UBC professor and member of the Brain Research Centre, and her team, demonstrated that neurexins induce formation of neurotransmitter receptor sites. This finding was used by another group of experts to discover that mutations in neurexins and neuroligins appear to cause autism in a small number of cases.

“Although, the number of cases was small, the results give us a cellular and molecular link to study how the disorder occurs,” says, Craig. “Research from our late colleague, Dr. Alaa El-Husseini contributed further by showing how neuroligans control the balance of synaptic connections. These studies continue to inform ongoing research on potential treatments for Autism.”

Dr. Julia Levy, an immunologist at UBC, noticed that her children would sometimes develop lesions on their legs and torso after playing in a field of cow parsley. Curious as to what was causing this, Levy consulted with a colleague in the botany department at UBC who explained how cow parsley contains a photosensitizer chemical activated by light. This started Levy’s interest in photodynamic therapies, which she incorporated into her work on cancer immunology. Levy’s work, alongside that of David Dolphin led to the formation of QLT and the development of Visudyne™, a treatment for age-related blindness that has been used to treat more than half a million people and is now available in more than 70 countries.

UBC Professor of Music Theory William Benjamin, says his current research is purely curiosity driven. He is exploring the behaviour of hearing music.

“The impulse to re-hear music in our heads is close to universal,” says Benjamin. “One of the reasons we seek out music is to remember it vividly. My focus is to understand why we replay music in our heads whether or not it affects us deeply in an emotional sense.”

Benjamin says his research will contribute to understanding the nature of our culture. He adds that most pure research driven by passion can eventually be applied to have a positive impact on the world.

This year’s Celebrate Research Week is an important part of UBC’s 2008 Centenary. For event details, visit: