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Anniversary Symposium Program


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Anniversary Symposium Program


8:00 am          Registration (pick up name tags) and coffee

8:30 am          Leah Cowen, Professor & Chair
8:45 am          James Friesen, Professor Emeritus
8:55 am          Keynote Presentation: Lap-Chee Tsui (Hong Kong Academy of Sciences)
                             “From Phage Biology to Molecular Genetics — Research in Evolution
9:25 am          Liz Patton (University of Edinburgh)
                             "New Targets for Melanoma using Zebrafish Chemical Genetics"
9:50 am          Cheryl Birmingham (Sanofi-Pasteur)
                             “The 'D' in Vaccine R&D” 

10:15 am       Coffee break

10:45 am       Stephen Scherer, University Professor
10:55 am       Anastasia Baryshnikova (Calico Labs)
“Systematic analysis of the yeast knock-out phenome“
11:20 am       Angela Andersen (Life Science Editors)
                             "Life Science Editors: Maximize Your Impact"
11:45 am       Scott Dixon (Stanford University)
                             “From Worms to Synthetic Lethality and Beyond" 

12:10 pm       Box lunch
12:15 pm       Trainee-Alumni Mentorship Workshop (organized by graduate students)  

1:40 pm Announcement by Leah Cowen & David Dime:
David Dime and Elisa Nuyten Catalyst Fund Award Recipients

1:45 pm          Brenda Andrews, University Professor
1:55 pm          Keynote Presentation: Roderick McInnes (McGill University)
                             "Reflections on a Brilliant Department: a Template for Great Science"
2:25 pm          Christopher Koth (Genentech)
                             “Violating Murphy's Law to Modulate Membrane Signaling and Transport”
2:50 pm          Kristin Hope (McMaster University)
                             “Understanding hematopoietic stem cells and unlocking their regenerative potential”
3:15 pm          Arvin Dar (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NY)
                             “Chemical Genetic Discovery of Cancer Targets and Anti-Targets”

3:40 pm          Coffee break

4:10 pm          Pleasantine Mill (University of Edinburgh)
                             “Cilia in Development and Disease: Dynamics, Diversity and Dogma”
4:35 pm          Tina McDivitt (Spindle)
                             “The business of science”
5:00 pm          Joe Bondy-Denomy (University of California, San Francisco)
                             “50 MoRons for MoGen 50: How bacteriophages inhibit CRISPR-Cas immunity”
5:25 pm          Leah Cowen, Professor & Chair
                             Closing remarks

5:30 pm          Reception, Dinner, and Entertainment (Music, Photos, and Science Arcade)

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Sumbit your Anniversary Story


Sumbit your Anniversary Story


MoGen Stories

Do you want to share an experience you had when studying or working at the department? Do you have a story to tell to give us insights into your corners of the MSB, the heights of MaRS tower, the life behind glass at the Donnelly, or the hidden corridors in a hospital?

Please share with us!

We are looking for short stories (a paragraph or two) about your time in the Department, on any aspect that you think would be nice to share with the rest of our community. We will post as many as possible here on this website. 

For example:

  • Do you want to share an experience you had while studying or working at the department?

  • What impact did Molecular Genetics have on your life?

  • Do you have a story to tell to give us insights into your corners of the MSB, the heights of MaRS tower, the life behind glass at the Donnelly, or the hidden corridors in a hospital?

  • Do you have interesting or amusing anecdotes about your supervisor/node/lab/Department chair?

  • What was your favourite departmental event during your time here?

  • Why did you choose Molecular Genetics for your graduate study?

If you would like us to post a picture with your story (which we prefer), please email one to mogen.news@utoronto.ca

Name *
Name
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Ian Scott


Ian Scott


Failure (and beer) - the keys to my success...

Ian Scott
MoGen Alumnus, MoGen Professor and Grad Student Co-Coordinator

I first came to MoGen (or whatever it was called back then) in September of 1994, a bright-eyed biochemist keen to hang out in cold rooms and run things through columns. The beauty of the rotation system soon became evident to me. While my undergrad at Queen's had given me very limited exposure to developmental biology, a fortuitous rotation in the Rossant lab convinced me that I did not want to hang out in cold rooms, but instead became entranced with the beauty of the developing embryo. Upon announcing this decision to Janet, she kindly steered me to the lab of the new guy across the hall, Jay Cross. I'm sure Janet felt her lab was already "stacked" enough, and wanted to give everyone else a fighting chance...

I was Jay's first graduate student, and it was a great graduate experience. Jay put a lot of effort into mentoring me on all the critical aspects of science - experimental design, oral and written communication, etc. I still find myself using some of his advice on my trainees. It was a level of effort on his part I remain very grateful for. Being a grad student at the Lunenfeld in the mid- to late-90s was incredibly exciting. Mouse ES cell technology was coming to the forefront, and in many ways the 8th floor was an epicentre for this. There was an incredible group of grad students and postdocs in the developmental biology labs, including many who are now faculty members in our Department (Brian Ciruna, Peter Roy, Gary Bader) and elsewhere. A few key things remain strong memories:

1. It was a pleasure to be in the lab. We often worked punishingly long hours, but people were always around to discuss science and other things. The cold room was often stocked with beer, which also helped. Rugby and the opportunity to hit things/blow off steam was also a good relief valve.

2. The Collaborative Developmental Biology program had just been started by Janet, and I was fortunate enough to be in (I think) the first class. The journal club was very active and U of T-wide. The weekly Howard-Derek sparring was well worth the early mornings (as were the free bagels!). The actual graduate class was amazing - discussions of classic and more modern dev bio papers with a faculty that included Janet, Derek, Rick Elinson (a very kind and knowledgeable embryologist) and Peter McCourt (the token plant guy, who actually had a lot to add). We even (a theme is developing here) had beer at some of the classes. Derek's contrarian questioning was always fun and taught me a lot.

3. My reclass was extremely intimidating. I had Jack Greenblatt asking me questions about transcriptional mechanisms, which was terrifying. Jay threw me a softball question at the end, but I was so exhausted that I completely pooched it. I can still see the blood draining from his face. It's the main reason I never ask my trainees questions at reclass/thesis defenses. An added bonus is that my PhD proposal was published on NCBI immediately after my reclass exam. Beer to the rescue!

4. After finally leaving Toronto, I learned that the training I had received was truly 1st class. At UCSF, contrary to my expectations, it was simple to plug into my new lab and scientific environment. I certainly owe a lot of this success to Jay and MoGen.

It's been great to be back again on the "other side" as a PI in MoGen for almost 15 (!?!$*&) years now, and more recently as one of the Graduate Coordinators as well. While we can't store beer in the cold rooms any more, this Department remains a special place.   

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Erin Styles


Erin Styles


A Decade in Review – Blood, Sweat, & Sabering

Erin Styles
MoGen Alumna, MoGen Professor, and M.H.Sc. Medical Genomics Program Director

I arrived in Toronto in September of 2009, to a questionably zoned apartment in Chinatown above a seedy knock-off handbag store, where I quickly and gleefully filled my cupboards with dried ramen noodles and slightly-off produce from Kensington Market. It was perfect, and my roommates and I, all charmingly naïve new graduate students at UofT, reveled in our cheap furniture (“I can’t believe someone was throwing this away!”) and alarming proximity to the El Mocambo’s never-ending live music, which rocketed through our paper-thin walls like they didn’t exist. I was fresh from a non-genetics undergraduate program at The University of Guelph, and to this day I’m supremely thankful for whoever on the MoGen admissions committee read my application and decided to take a chance on me – an applicant with a transcript strewn with literature courses, and only a limited background in molecular biology. Thankful that they had enough coffee (or wine?) in them to see that I was invested enough in genetics – an area that I broke into only during the final year of my undergraduate – that I would be able to succeed in their top-tier research program.  

Determined to prove this mystery admissions committee member right and make a great impression during my rotations, I decided to throw myself completely into the semi-planned mini-projects that overworked post-docs in my three rotation labs dreamed up for me. Then right on cue, I promptly got H1N1 (remember when that was something?) and missed almost the entirety of my second rotation. This was a problem for two reasons – one is that swine flu was terrible (since then the only thing more unpleasant has been childbirth), the other is that I was rotating through Brenda Andrews’ lab, the group that I knew I wanted to join after having been there for about five minutes. Amazingly, inexplicably, the department took another chance on me. Brenda accepted me into her lab, under the co-supervision of her Donnelly Centre neighbour Charlie Boone, in spite of the fact that I’d missed a huge portion of my rotation there, and in spite of the fact that I accidentally said “STD” instead of “SGA” (a much-used lab technique in both groups) when I gave my rotation lab meeting. Phew, and also, wow.

I spent the next five and a half years blissed out on yeast genomics. I could most often be found crouched behind one of the many, many kinds of microscopes that my project required, or wading through huge excel sheets of phenotypic data, trying to make sense of all of the ways you can screw up a cell by mutating it. My focus was originally on the DNA damage response pathway, but when that was done the rest of the cell was waiting, and so I kept on systematically messing up yeast cells until I’d taken terabytes of pictures of phenotypically horrifying cells. I destroyed nuclei, Golgi apparatuses, kinetochores, mitochondria, cell walls – you name it, I togged it up and took pictures in the name of science. These years in the Andrews and Boone labs were formative and irreplaceable. Grad school smashed me apart and rebuilt me as a better, tougher, smarter version of myself. Brenda and Charlie showed me what scientific curiosity and creativity – and what being a mentor – looks like. They also (as importantly) taught me the true meaning of the phrase “work hard, play hard,” that nothing ventured is truly nothing gained, and that there are more occasions than you might think that warrant cutting the top off a champagne bottle with a sabre.

Now in 2019, just months before my ten-year anniversary at UofT, I’m more invested than ever in the MoGen Department, and I’ve found my way to the other side. For the last two years, I’ve been an assistant professor in the teaching stream, and the Director of one of the Faculty of Medicine’s newest professional Master’s programs – an M.H.Sc. in Medical Genomics that launched in September of 2018. Now it’s my turn to mentor, and I could not be prouder of this new program, and of what our tireless faculty and inaugural class has already accomplished. Having just raced through one action-packed decade in the MoGen Department, I can’t wait to see what the next decade holds, and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.  

Hold my sabre, I think this calls for champagne.

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Caron Pyne


Caron Pyne


Great training!

Caron Pyne
MoGen alumna

Molecular Genetics BSc degree and BioSci diploma from SIAST Saskatoon gave me great training for my working life. It allowed me to work summers while at U of T and gave me four years of employment with Dr. Byron Lane and Dr. Andrew Bognar of MoGen. It provided me with my jobs at VIDO and AgCanada in Saskatoon for 22 years. I am now retired and enjoying travel, meditation, kayaking... Thanks to all the great teachers and students and administrations. Have a great reunion!

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Peter Roy


Peter Roy


Tons and tons of worm plates everywhere

Peter Roy
MoGen Alumnus, Professor and Vice Chair

The Department of Molecular Genetics (aka Medical Genetics) has been an inseparable part of my life for over 26 years.  The venerable institution has given me such incredible opportunities again and again and any success that I have experienced could not have been achieved without its support.

In the spring of 1993 I received a phone call from Medical Genetics while working in a lab as 4th year undergrad at Dalhousie University.  Being a small town kid from a mining town, I was both humbled and intimidated by the invitation to visit the department.  I have vivid memories of touring Alex Joyner’s lab at SLRI (now LTRI) that summer, and her student Kathy realizing that cross-sections of mouse brain slices was not turning my crank.  I thought I wanted to study mammalian brain development, but Kathy new better.  She spontaneously led me down the hall and knocked on Joe Culotti’s office door.  He’s in this small office, and has his own dissection scope in there along with tons and tons of worm plates everywhere.  Always generous with his time, and ever-enthusiastic, Joe offers me a seat and introduces me to APOG- the awesome power of genetics with C. elegans

I am a little ashamed to say that I had never heard of C. elegans before meeting Joe.  No one at DAL worked on it, and if it was discussed in class, I must have been daydreaming.  As an undergrad, I worked on Sea Monkeys (Artemia franciscana), so I was use to working with small animals and primed to learn about an even better system. 

Joe starts explaining how the worm is transparent, how he uses this technique called LacZ staining to see axons (remember- this is before Chalfie invents GFP as a reporter) and how he can EMS worms to find axon guidance mutants and then clone the genes.  At the time, I didn’t realize (or even understand the significance) that Joe, Andrew Spence and colleagues had just cloned unc-5, and Joe and his buddies cloned unc-6 the year before, but it didn’t matter.  Joe’s enthusiasm was permeating, and the beauty of the worm was self-evident.  Right then and there in Joe’s office, I knew I wanted to work on the worm with Joe. 

Sometime later in 2002, I’m working in Stuart Kim’s lab at Stanford on using microarray technology to better understand gene expression during axon guidance in C. elegans.  Those experiments didn’t work out quite the way I envisioned, but I got a story out of the work nevertheless and my boss was pretty excited about it.  Stuart was invited by then Chair Brenda Andrews to come up and give a Distinguished Lecture talk hosted by Molecular Genetics and he highlighted my work.  One thing led to another and Brenda ended up offering me a job.   Not a day goes by that I don’t miss California, but I am forever grateful to Brenda for giving me my first real job and for giving me encouragement to pursue projects that some might consider off the beaten path.

It will come off as cliché, but I can’t imagine a better collaborative and supportive working environment than MoGen and U of T in general.  The collaborative spirit of Toronto’s  Research District fosters the development of projects that would be next to impossible to pursue for any single lab.  And the caliber and drive of my colleagues continually inspires me to push our science beyond what we think is possible. 

 So, thanks to you MoGen, Brenda, Howard and Leah, and happy 50th Anniversary!

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Ronald Worton about disease genes


Ronald Worton about disease genes


The Beginning of Molecular Genetics at SickKids

Ronald Worton, former Molecular Genetics faculty

The Molecular Genetics group at the Hospital for Sick Children had its beginnings with Lou Siminovitch’s appointment in 1970 as Geneticist-in-Chief followed quickly by the appointment of Manuel Buchwald, Diane Cox and Ron Worton, followed by Roy Gravel and Rod McInnes, and later Lap-Chee Tsui who had been a postdoctoral fellow with Buchwald. The 1970’s was a time of focus on cell genetics until about 1977 when Siminovitch came back from a meeting in LA to impress on us the growing excitement with the new “recombinant DNA” technology. Within five years we all re-positioned our focus to molecular genetics, and within another five years we led the world with the identification of disease genes including Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Worton with Peter Ray, 1986), Tay-Sachs disease (Gravel, 1987), Cystic Fibrosis (Tsui, 1989), Wilson’s disease (Cox, 1991) and Fanconi anemia (Buchwald, 1992). I vividly recall “The Professor” of Genetics from Oxford making the rounds of our 11th floor labs and expressing great surprise that five scientists who had individually gained international recognition for disease gene discovery were all clustered on one small floor in a hospital-based department previously unknown except for Margaret Thompson’s classical studies in human genetics. We were seen at the time as outperforming famous hospitals and universities around the globe, including Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge. It was truly a golden era, and it lasted until we were overtaken in the mid-90s by the Human Genome Project.

Since then Rod McInnes became an international leader in the genetics of eye development and retinal degeneration, Steve Scherer and Johanna Rommens emerged out of Tsui’s group to uphold the U of T and SickKids’ international reputation in genomics and gene discovery (autism, Alzheimer’s and breast cancer), Peter Ray, following collaborations with both Siminovitch and Worton, became an international leader in DNA diagnostics, and Rosanna Weksberg emerged (after earlier graduate studies with Siminovitch and Buchwald) to become a world leader in epigenetic regulation of human development. Of the original six, Buchwald went on to be Chief of Research at SickKids, Cox to be Chair of Genetics at the University of Alberta, Gravel to be Director of Research at Montreal Children’s Hospital, Worton to be Scientific Director of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and head of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, Tsui to be President of the University of Hong Kong, and McInnes to be Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Genetics, Director of Research at the Lady Davis Research Institute at McGill and most recently Acting President of CIHR. Siminovitch, Tsui and Worton are now Laureates of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and it is likely that others will follow. It is quite an amazing story. 

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Ronald Worton about CF


Ronald Worton about CF


Cystic Fibrosis Gene Discovery and its International Press Coverage

Ronald Worton, former Molecular Genetics faculty

Among the U of T disease gene discoveries at SickKids, the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene was no doubt the greatest achievement. Lap-Chee Tsui had come to SickKids as a post-doctoral fellow with Manuel Buchwald where he initiated a project to track the CF gene in families with two or more affected children. By 1985 he had established his own group and they had linked the gene to DNA markers on chromosome 7. With Batsheva Kerem leading the genetic mapping, Johanna Rommens began the arduous process of isolating segments of DNA from the chromosome and using them to “walk” along the chromosome using sequence hybridization to identify adjacent pieces of the genome. Frances Collins, then at the University of Michigan, joined the effort by having his lab conduct “chromosome jumping” to identify sites further along the chromosome. By 1989 the SickKids group had identified a DNA sequence thought to contain the putative gene, and in collaboration with U of T / SickKids biochemist Jack Riordan, they together identified an expressed gene from Jack’s sweat gland cDNA library that was found to harbor a small deletion in CF patients. The gene had the characteristics of a “transport regulator” and the “CFTR gene” was later identified as encoding a chloride channel. The result from four years of intense effort was published in three contiguous papers in one issue of Science in September 1989, and their linkage map graced the cover of the magazine. 
It was an achievement worthy of a major publicity effort, and it is that story that I thought you might enjoy reading about. Shortly after Science accepted the three manuscripts, they decided to accelerate the publication, giving the authors only a few days to get patents in order before publication. Then a press conference was quickly arranged and Johanna Rommens, as the lead author on the gene cloning paper, had to be tracked down by the RCMP while hiking in the Rocky Mountains so she could be at the announcement. Francis Collins flew in the night before the press conference. Meanwhile the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the American CF Foundation, who funded some of the work, wanted a second press conference in Washington early enough to make that day’s newspapers and TV. So… our press conference was moved from 10 am to 9 am, and HHMI provided a helicopter to be on the roof of SickKids to take the participants to a private plane for the flight to Washington. I was the novice organizer of the press conference, and of course I let everyone know of the time change – everyone that is but John Dirks, the Dean of Medicine, who arrived at 10 am as everyone was leaving. That was not my finest hour. But the rest went well. Manuel Buchwald joined Lap-Chee, Francis, Jack and Johanna for the whirly-bird ride to Washington and I stayed behind to explain to the Canadian press why they could not have one-on-one interviews with the SickKids / U of T scientists. It was a memorable day.

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Lucy Xie


Lucy Xie


On the importance of mentors

Lucy Xie, Molecular Genetics Alumna

When I first heard that the Department of Molecular Genetics is celebrating its 50th anniversary, the first thing that came to mind was the fact that I was there for its 40th anniversary celebration. I was then a second year undergraduate student and I just chose to specialize in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. It became one of the most important decisions of my life, leading me to meet my now-husband and to find my path towards a career in academia.

During my time at MoGen, I met two incredibly supportive mentors who continue to be positive role models for me to this day. I would never have embarked on this journey if it wasn’t for Dr. William Navarre, my undergraduate supervisor. He took a chance on me when I was a sophomore and instilled in me the confidence to pursue science as a career. I am equally grateful to my PhD advisor, Dr. Leah Cowen. She is an incredibly passionate scientist, and her enthusiasm towards science was a constant source of motivation throughout my PhD. Today, I am training as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, focusing my research on understanding mutation-independent mechanisms of drug resistance. Needless to say, MoGen has been an integral part of my life and career and I am forever grateful! 

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Justin Nodwell


Justin Nodwell


My first grad seminar...

MoGen alumnus and current Chair of the Department of Biochemistry

I was extremely nervous about this seminar - I had some data and my project seemed to be going alright but I had never done anything like this before. To settle my nerves, I scripted every single thing I was going to say in the allotted half hour - quite literally starting with "Hello, my name is....". A seven page print out, single spaced, 12 point font. No, I am not joking. Eight minutes into my talk I dropped all seven pages - they scattered around the feet of one of the most famous scientists in Canada - Alan Bernstein. I stooped over to gather them up, swearing lightly under my breath, my heart pounding. I glanced up nervously and made eye contact with Alan who said "just leave the print out - wing it". Words from the master - it was great advice... the rest of the seminar went fine and I've never done that again.

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Richard Wintle


Richard Wintle


What a time to begin a career...

Richard Wintle - former Mogen grad student and Assistant Director of the TCAG

My U of T molecular genetics journey began in September of 1989, as a fourth-year project student in the lab of Diane Cox at SickKids. If you know the history of human genetics in Toronto, you’ll recognize that as the month that the cystic fibrosis gene was identified by Lap-Chee Tsui’s group and collaborators – the lab next door. My first week in Diane’s lab, and that was all I heard – “Did you hear about Lap-Chee’s lab? They found the CF gene! They published three papers in Science!” The enthusiasm was infectious – just what a brand new undergrad project student needed. The bench I sat at backed on to the part of Lap-Chee’s group that had overflowed from next door. The pedigrees of the CF families used for the analysis hung on that bench, a visual reminder of that landmark work that I got to see every day I spent in the lab – and there were many, because it was far more fun than going to the library, or studying at home!

Eventually, I ended up doing a PhD with Diane. I spent my time mapping immunoglobulin heavy chain genes, learning genomics, and absorbing as much as I could from neighbouring labs too: Worton, Ray, Buchwald, Tsui, Friesen, many others. My career since then has been full of friends made in those labs, no small number of whom I still work with now. Through it all, I haven’t wandered very far – always in the downtown core, near and sometimes on the university campus. For the better part of three decades, as a student with Diane, a postdoc at the Clarke Institute collaborating with the Culotti lab, in companies founded by faculty, I’ve been associated with MolGen in one way or another. For the last 13 years, I’ve been back at SickKids again, working for Steve Scherer, another one of those grad school friends from Lap-Chee’s lab, way back in the 90’s.

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Katrina Soh


Katrina Soh


50 years of success and more to come

Katrina Soh - Department of Molecular Genetics Business Manager.

By September 2019, I will be working in MoGen for seventeen years. One of the most enjoyable moment is receiving the delicious cookies from our talented graduate students during the holidays. Not only because the cookies are so tasty, but also their thoughtfulness mean a lot to our diligent administrative team. Our team has now grown to seven full-time staff members. I am grateful to work with such a fantastic group under the brilliant leadership of the former and present Chairs/Acting Chairs - Brenda, Rick, Howard, Alan & Leah.

Many amazing things happened in the year of 1969. We are working in a 50-year-old Medical Sciences Building Celebrating 50 years of success of the Department of Molecular Genetics. We will continue Engaging with these superb researchers (finding creative ways to manage their expectations). We are looking forward to Inspiring our scientists to excel in this important field of biomedical research. 

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Class of 1987


Class of 1987


Dear class of 1987

Sean Blaine, Michelle Curtis (Rabindranath), Jeff Dalgarno, Robert Day and Frank Miemiec, Department of Molecular Genetics Class of 1987

Dear Classmates:

Remember those all-day Friday labs for MGB 450? That was one of the highlights of our time at U of T back in 1987 when we were only the second graduating class in the Molecular Genetics and Biology programme. The case of beer in the cold room while we were waiting for our DNA samples to spin down in the centrifuge. Or the times when a looong RNA binding or electrophoresis process was made faster by a trip to the Hart House pub in the mid-afternoon before returning to do the next step in the procedure.

Some of us have kept in touch over the years, with the occasional reunion at Hart House, or the excellent 2009 symposium and dinner to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Department of Molecular Genetics. The symposium presenters were working on some pretty neat stuff, not so hard to understand given our education in the field, even after all these years. Blue Rodeo put on an excellent performance after dinner that day.

So now it’s the 50th anniversary. How time flies! A group of us are again planning to attend the symposium this coming May 31st, or at least the reception and dinner. You’ll see the full details an invitation from the department below.

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It would be so awesome to see a few of our classmates from back in the day. So if you missed the original invitation to this year’s event, please accept our personal invitations and register online for the 50th anniversary celebration. If you can’t spare the day to attend the symposium, at least come after work to the reception and dinner. You are guaranteed to have a few laughs and leave with a smile on your face. And that’s good medicine!

Hope to see you May 31st!

Sean Blaine
Michelle Curtis (Rabindranath)
Jeff Dalgarno
Robert Day
Frank Miemiec