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MaRS Spotlight: Dr. Warren Wakarchuk

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Dr. Warren Wakarchuk
Professor and lead, Faculty User Group
Department of Chemistry and Biology
Faculty of Science
“The era in which science happens in isolated labs behind closed doors is over.”

A new space and a brand new era for Ryerson biomedical research

Faculty lead Dr. Warren Wakarchuk reveals the vision behind Ryerson’s new lab at MaRS

Driven by a bold vision to grow Ryerson’s capacity for world-class science research, Dean of Science Dr. Imogen Coe tasked professor and 20-year National Research Council veteran Dr. Warren Wakarchuk with leading the development of a new-generation research facility where Ryerson students and faculty could expand the horizons of biomedical science.

Before long, Dr. Wakarchuk, colleagues on the project’s Faculty User Group and the CPRE team were working with veteran science and technology designers NXL Architects on a 20,000-square-foot purpose-built laboratory in Toronto’s innovative MaRS Discovery District. While construction of the new space progresses quickly, Dr. Wakarchuk answers three key questions about what the new facility means for students, learning, and the future of biomedical research at Ryerson.

What’s behind Ryerson’s decision to invest in a new lab facility?

WW: “Although Ryerson is a relative newcomer in biomedical science – we launched our first undergraduate degree program in this field in 2013 – we have a bold vision for growth. To attract top faculty and students, we need to update our research facilities. After all, competition for great talent is fierce; plus our older research spaces are simply not equipped for 21st century science research, let alone able to accommodate our plans for growth. So we set out to create an innovative research facility that would be flexible, foster cross-disciplinary collaboration, and place a modern research approach firmly at the heart of student learning.”
“Our new space is more than just a dramatic improvement for our students and faculty; it’s a sign of our growing maturity in this field, and of Ryerson’s commitment to science – a signal that we are here to stay and grow.” ~ Dr. Wakarchuk, Faculty User Group lead for Ryerson’s Department of Chemistry and Biology

What excites you most about the new location within the MaRS Discovery District?

WW: “First and foremost, the new facility allows us to consolidate research and people who are currently scattered across campus into a specially designed, modern facility. And being situated within the MaRS complex allows our researchers to operate amidst other research-intensive organizations including Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, Clinical Trials Ontario and U of T. I’m excited by the potential for growing our work and connections within this environment.

“At the heart of our vision is a belief that the era in which science happens in isolated labs behind closed doors is over. The new lab is divided into four flexible zones with discrete purposes and equipment, but with few physical separations, so people can collaborate and observe easily. By creating a space where idea-sharing and collaboration can happen naturally, and situating it all within a community dedicated to innovation, we are fundamentally changing the way our science will unfold and creating new synergies simply by proximity. And that means a big step forward in Ryerson’s ability to shape an exciting and fast-evolving field of scientific enquiry.”

On the unique challenge of relocating scientific research:
“The whole process involves very complex logistics. Consider that highly sensitive equipment and research projects must move to new space without damaging the samples and work-in-progress! Working with CPRE’s operational readiness team, we’ve planned a very carefully staged move-in in which equipment will be set up and calibrated in advance. The payoff will be when we see the researchers – and their projects – in their new space.”

 

Building a lab from scratch is a big undertaking. How did the team approach this project?

WW: “There’s no room for error in designing scientific facilities. Our Faculty User Group took this challenge very seriously, collaborating with our colleagues at CRPE and NXL Architects to identify needs, map workflows and sort out how it would all come together. That positive collaboration really comes through in the final design. We focused on making smart choices and investments, whether in collaboration spaces or high-end microscopy and cold lab equipment or more. What’s more, we’ve tried to both anticipate the evolving needs of researchers and leave room to grow. I’m tremendously excited to see how our teams adapt to a very different, but hugely promising new way of working together.”

Meet Ryerson research superstars

The new facility affords ‘room to grow’, says Dr. Wakarchuk, who expects the new lab to support efforts to recruit a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair. Meet some of the Ryerson researchers who will be working in the new space:

  • Dr. Roberto Botelho, Canada Research Chair and cell biologist, is investigating how immune cells get rid of pathogens. “He has a particular interest in how imaging can help us visualize this sophisticated process so the lab’s highly specialized imaging equipment is an exciting feature.”
  • Dr. Costin Antonescu, whose work on cell signaling will help us understand better how cells respond to stress – like pathogens and drugs.
  • New hire Dr. Joseph McPhee, whose work on gut bugs and cell biology explores what our cells do with pathogens when they encounter them, is also intrigued by the value of imaging. “Already we’re seeing the potential for collaboration across the team,” says Dr. Wakarchuk.
  • New hire Dr. Sarah Sabatinos looks at DNA repair mechanisms and their role in how cancer cells survive chemotherapy so that we can design better treatments.

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