Three U of T faculty appointed members of the Royal Society of Canada's college for new scholars

September 10, 2019 by Perry King - U of T News

One researcher wants to beat cancer. Another is developing a better malaria vaccine. Yet another is one of Canada’s leading paleontologists.

The three University of Toronto faculty members — Daniel De CarvalhoJean-Philippe Julien and David Evans — have been named to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

The college recognizes up-and-coming researchers who have demonstrated a high level of achievement in their careers to date.

“Daniel De Carvalho, Jean-Philippe Julien and David Evans are leaders in their respective fields who exemplify the important work that takes place at the University of Toronto every day across a wide range of disciplines,” says Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives.

“We’re extremely proud of their admission to the college and look forward to seeing their research make an impact in Canada and beyond. U of T congratulates them for this impressive appointment.”

Established in 2014, the college seeks to recognize and foster academic leadership and collaboration among those who have received their PhD within the last 15 years. The appointment honours excellence and appointees are granted a seven-year membership. Up to 80 members may be elected each year.

Daniel De Carvalho

Daniel De Carvalho.
Daniel De Carvalho.

An associate professor in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the Faculty of Medicine and a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, De Carvalho is being named to the college the same year that he becomes a Canadian citizen.

“It’s a big honour,” says De Carvalho, who joined U of T in 2012. “I feel like it’s a really exciting welcome to Canada. I’m really happy.”

The Brazil-born researcher’s work focuses on epigenetics, or the changes brought on by modification of gene expression, and better understanding the mechanisms behind tumour growth and translating this knowledge into more efficient approaches for therapy.

Some of his research has uncovered possible cancer treatments.

“When we’re thinking about cancer in general, [we’re thinking about] how can we beat cancer — make new therapies and so on,” De Carvalho says.

His lab is focused on early detection since cancers evolve, cell mutations occur within patients and, in some cases, can become metastatic. His team wants to get ahead of such threats.

“If you detect early, it’s much easier to treat. But it’s very difficult to detect. Later on, it’s very easy to detect but it’s very difficult to treat,” says De Carvalho. “We’re trying to break this in a way that can be more useful to the patient.”

The opportunity to work with researchers across multiple disciplines, from immunology to computational biology, helps keep De Carvalho motivated.

“I have to trust and believe everyone here,” he says. “I’m really hands off so it gives space to trainees — post-docs, visiting scientists, PhD students — so they’re all working together.”

As he joins the Royal Society of Canada, De Carvalho wants to spread the idea that curiosity-driven research like his needs broad support.

“We need to figure out ways … to create an ecosystem in Canada where science can move faster from basic science to the clinical side.”

Jean-Philippe Julien

Jean-Philippe Julien.
Jean-Philippe Julien.

Julien, an assistant professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine and a scientist at the SickKids Research Institute, studies how the immune system works and harnesses that information to design interventions, including vaccines.

In particular, Julien investigates B cells, which produce antibodies that neutralize invading pathogens like bacteria, viruses and parasites.

With a focus on infectious diseases — in recent years, his team has been unpacking the complexities of malaria and HIV — his lab seeks to understand health at an atomic scale.

“We think that if you understand the molecular basis of immune responses, you can intervene more precisely,” says Julien.

His lab, which has recently been leading several research fronts toward the development of a malaria vaccine, partners with numerous collaborators. They include research sites with unique samples from individuals exposed to infectious disease, and from clinical trial sites that offer opportunities for researchers to learn how humans respond to vaccine candidates.

“We learn from the human response as much as we can — natural settings, but also in testing new technologies and interrogating them at the molecular level,” says Julien, who received his PhD from U of T in 2010.

Julien says his membership in the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists is a reflection of his team’s success — not only his own. He also sees it as an opportunity to grow as a thought leader.

“The biggest aspect to it, for me, is the ability to be part of an organization that mentors junior colleagues — not just in science and research but also in leadership and outreach,” he says. “I really look forward to that.”

As for the future, Julien says he’s focused on gaining a better understanding of the molecular basis of disease to guide the development of next-generation biomedical interventions.

David Evans

David Evans.
David Evans.

An associate professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in the Faculty of Arts & Science who oversees dinosaur research at the Royal Ontario Museum, Evans studies the Cretaceous Period to understand Earth’s biodiversity crisis today.

The paleontologist is trying to build the fossil record from that “data-rich” period — the one before the mass extinction event 66 million years ago wiped out over 75 per cent of species on Earth, including all the non-avian dinosaurs.

Speaking at his office at the ROM, Evans says his work focuses on fundamental questions about life on Earth at that time. In turn, the data contributes to ecological models that test the resilience of different organisms to extinction, and ecosystems to collapse.

Such work will help us understand the “causes and consequences of mass extinctions,” Evans says. His work takes into account what makes a robust ecosystem, what species are more likely to survive an extinction event and what happens to ecosystems as a result of habitat destruction and sea level and climate change.

“We have a lot of these particular scenarios that have played out in Earth’s history that we can go back to and study to see what the particular consequences of those types of changes have been on the Earth’s biota through time,” says Evans, who joined the ROM in 2007.

From “boots on the ground” fossil digs to collaborations with global research teams, Evans has personally been involved with the discovery of 11 new dinosaur species in the last six years, including a 76-million-year-old armoured dinosaur in 2017.

But there is still work to be done. Only about 900 dinosaur species have been verified in the 150 million years of recorded dinosaur history, says Evans. That pales in comparison to the number of known bird, mammal and reptile species in the present day.

“That’s what I tell a lot of the up-and-coming young paleontologists that I see here at the museum and around the world — that dinosaur discoveries are not running out anytime soon,” Evans says.

“There will be generations and generations of new discoveries to be made and they can make them. We’re not even close to knowing everything.”