Brenda Andrews, Founding Director of Donnelly Centre

Brenda Andrews, C.C., PhD, FRSC

University Professor Brenda Andrews was appointed inaugural director of the Donnelly Centre on July 1, 2004, the position she held for 15 years through three consecutive terms.

Under Andrews’ direction, the Centre grew into a global hub for multidisciplinary research and innovation in biomedicine. It also became a fertile training ground for future scientific leaders, with competitive internal fellowships and awards to attract and honour the best graduate students and postdocs, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in industry and as independent investigators in world-leading research institutions.

“The Donnelly Centre today is recognized as a shining beacon of excellence for Canadian health research and Brenda as founding director could not be more widely admired and respected,” said former U of T President David Naylor who was Dean of Medicine when the Centre was founded and appointed Andrews as its founding director.

“Her qualities of leadership and good judgment have been widely recognized as well as her scientific rigour and ingenuity. It’s an extraordinary legacy,” said Naylor.

Globally recognized for her pioneering research in large scale genetics and cell biology, Andrews has authored more than 200 scientific articles and reviews and received numerous national and international awards. She was named Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest national honor that can be bestowed on any citizen. Andrews is Canada Research Chair in Systems Genetics & Cell Biology, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an international member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and holds the highest academic rank of University Professor, among other honors and appointments.

Bridging the split between basic and applied sciences, Andrews has long supported efforts for the discoveries in the Centre to be turned into medical advances. She spearheaded the launch of the Accelerator for Donnelly Collaboration, a biotechnology incubator for start-ups and companies to partner with the Centre’s investigators. The accelerator was made possible thanks to a generous gift from Terrence Donnelly, whose initial gift also helped found the Centre.

Andrews has recruited and fostered a community of top researchers from diverse fields of science at all stages in their careers, who are asking some of the biggest questions in biology and inventing technologies to answer them. During her tenure, the Centre’s investigators have transformed our understanding of the core cellular machinery and how it is linked to disease. Science public outreach has also thrived, with the Centre hosting educational events aimed at instilling curiosity and love of science among young Canadians, especially girls.

Andrews has been instrumental from the outset in creating the environment for Donnelly Centre researchers to flourish. With state-of-the-art labs housed in a stunning building, with open concept space that fosters collaboration, the Centre was envisioned as a modern-day successor to the iconic Banting and Best Department of Medical Research (BBDMR). The BBDMR institute was founded in 1930 by Nobel laureate Frederick Banting and Charles Best on the heels of their insulin discovery; it was the first U of T department dedicated solely to research.

At the turn of last century, the late U of T Professor Cecil Yip and Professor Emeritus James Friesen recognized the need to draw expertise from different fields of science to fully harness the potential of rapidly evolving genomic technologies in health research.

Andrews, who previously served as Chair of BBDMR, oversaw the integration of the BBDMR labs with research teams from the Faculties of Medicine, Engineering and Arts and Science into the newly founded Donnelly Centre in 2005. She also led the recruitment of top research talent, which has continued apace in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Andrews completed her doctoral and postdoctoral training at U of T and the University of California San Francisco, respectively, returning to U of T as an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Genetics (now Molecular Genetics), which she also chaired from 1999-2004.

A scientific community builder, Andrews contributes her time and expertise to various organizations at home and abroad. She is the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Genes|Genomes|Genetics, an open access journal of the Genetics Society of America. She is also as a member on the Governing Council of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the primary federal funding agency for medical research, and she served as the inaugural director of the Genetic Networks program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Andrews stepped down on June 30, 2020, after completing her third and final term. Her long-term collaborator Professor Charlie Boone held the reins as Interim Director until the appointment of Professor Stephane Angers as Director on September 1, 2021.