Pioneering behavioural geneticist Marla Sokolowski celebrated with special issue of the Journal of Neurogenetics

September 21, 2021 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

“In the first grade, in one of my first classes, my teacher read us a story about a scientist,” writes Moriah Sokolowski, daughter of behavioural geneticist Marla Sokolowski.

“To my utter shock,” she continues, “the scientist was a man. After the story, I asked the teacher, ‘Can men be scientists?’ She looked at me, bewildered, and replied: ‘Of course, anyone can be a scientist.’ It was not until later that my teacher learned that my mother was a scientist, and the only scientists I had ever met were women.”

Over the years, Moriah Sokolowski — now a scientist herself — came to realize that her assumption that all scientists were women was remarkable given the reality at the time: that female researchers were rare due largely to the barriers they faced within male-dominated disciplines. For Moriah, the recollection also underlined the qualities in her mother that enabled her to overcome those barriers and become a leader in her field.

Marla Sokolowski’s passion for science began early. In school, not wanting to be slotted into a career typically reserved for women, she purposely failed a typing test. “I got a big fat 52 per cent,” she recalls. After embarking on a path in research, the hurdles appeared and she had to tolerate interview questions such as “Are you going to quit when you get pregnant?” and “Won’t your husband expect you to be at home?”

Today, Sokolowski is a University Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a co-director emerita of CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and is only the second woman to win the society’s Flavelle Medal for research in the biological sciences.

Marla is an incredibly supportive mentor. She always believed in me and provided me with the kind of support that few might have. I know that I am where I am today in my career because of that. 

The childhood story is contained in an article her daughter wrote for a special issue of the Journal of Neurogenetics published this month celebrating her mother’s career and research. 

The issue features perspective, review and original research articles that pay tribute to Sokolowski’s foundational research, her dedication as a mentor, and includes articles written, not just by her daughter, but also by her husband Allen Sokolowski who is in U of T’s Faculty of Dentistry, and her son Dustin Sokolowski, who like his sister, is a scientist.

“It means the world to me,” says Sokolowski about the issue in her honour. “It couldn’t be more wonderful.

“It celebrates the subfield within behavioural genetics that I’ve developed over the last 40 years. It feels as if it contains my life’s work. And it celebrates all the amazing trainees and collaborators I’ve worked with throughout my career.”

One of those people is Ina Anreiter, a former PhD student of Sokolowski’s who in January will be rejoining U of T as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, U of T Scarborough.

“Marla is an incredibly supportive mentor,” says Anreiter. “She always believed in me and provided me with the kind of support that few might have. I know that I am where I am today in my career because of that. 

“Over the years in Marla's lab, as I met her past mentees, colleagues and friends, it became clear that my experience was shared with many,” she says. “This has led to many successful careers and many important scientific discoveries. We really felt like we should do something to let her know how appreciated she is and we were thrilled to see the enthusiasm from the people who contributed to the issue.”

Anreiter co-edited the issue along with Jeffrey Dason, a professor of biology at the University of Windsor.

“Marla is very deserving of this recognition for both her outstanding scientific achievements and her mentorship of current and past trainees,” says Dason. “She has always been a very kind and supportive mentor that gives her trainees the freedom and support to develop their own research path. 

“This approach has allowed Marla’s work to be truly multidisciplinary and has been instrumental in many of her trainees developing their own research programs in diverse fields such as behaviour genetics, evolution and ecology, molecular genetics, epigenetics, and neuroscience.”

I feel privileged to be living in a world of ideas, and to be able to follow the questions that are pushing me forward, one question after another.

In the issue’s introduction, the co-editors and editor-in-chief Chun-Fang Wu, a professor of genetics and neurobiology at the University of Iowa, write, “Sokolowski’s foundational discoveries in fruit flies, honey bees, ants, rodents and humans have shaped fundamental concepts in behavioural genetics and evolutionary biology.”

Sokolowski, who received her bachelor of science and PhD from U of T, has spent her career investigating how genes and the environment interact to determine behaviour. This groundbreaking approach is in contrast to the long-held nature vs. nurture dichotomy that says the two realms acted independently and that a behavioral trait was the result of genetics or the environment, but not both. 

She is perhaps best known for identifying the foraging gene in Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies. Interactions between the gene and other factors in the environment influence differences in the foraging behaviour of the insect. The result is two distinct strains of flies: “Rovers” are more active in their search for food and will travel farther afield to find it; and “sitters” are less active and don’t range as far.

But Sokolowski’s work reaches far beyond fruit flies, providing valuable insight into humans. Her research informs her work with the Child & Brain Development program and its mission to support children who have been negatively affected by early adversity — for example, children raised in poverty or exposed to violence.

While the tribute issue marks a milestone in Sokolowski’s career, it does not signal an end to her research career. 

“What I want to do now is get back into my lab and do research with my own hands, the way I used to when I was starting out,” she says. “I'm going to sit at the bench again and work on the projects that I want to work on.

“I feel privileged to be living in a world of ideas, and to be able to follow the questions that are pushing me forward, one question after another.”