Jan 9, 2019

Donors Meet Students Thriving on Their Gift


Jovana Drinjakovic

Jennifer Dorrington with Jon and Emma

Research labs do not usually stir up memories of childhood but that’s what happened to Jon Dorrington and his sister Emma Karpfinger on their recent visit to the Donnelly Centre.

As kids, they would often accompany their mom, U of T Professor Jennifer Dorrington, to the lab on the weekends as she looked after research animals. Now they were back in the lab albeit a more high-tech one than the antiquated space they remember from decades ago.

Vancouver-based Jon and his wife Jodie, got together with Emma, who lives in Germany, in Toronto this past August to meet the 2018 winners of the Jennifer Dorrington Graduate Research Award. Jon and Emma established the award in 2007 in memory of their mother, who passed away in 2001, to recognize outstanding students in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine doing research in the Donnelly Centre.

“It was an honour to finally meet Jon and Emma in person,” says Professor Tim Hughes, who welcomed the donors as the then Acting Director of the Donnelly Centre. “We are grateful for their generous gift that allows us to recognize our students and help them achieve their career goals.”

Dr. Dorrington was a professor in the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, founded in 1930 by Frederick Banting on the heels of his and Charles Best’s discovery of insulin and Banting’s Nobel win in 1923. The BBDMR was the first U of T Department relieved from teaching duty allowing its faculty to solely focus on research, something that Dr. Dorrington embraced when she arrived in 1971. Described by her children as extremely passionate about science and hard-working, Dr. Dorrington made foundational discoveries in ovarian physiology and co-founded and directed a company to apply her research.

BBDMR stayed active until the early 2000s when many of its faculty moved to the newly founded Donnelly Centre that was built as a state-of-the-art research institute fit for 21st century biomedical science.

During their visit to the Centre, the donors met with this year’s Dorrington award winners: Eesha Sharma, Alexander Vlahos and Mohsen Afshar, who talked about their research projects supported by the Dorrington gift. Vlahos works in University Professor Michael Sefton’s lab on a transplantation strategy to counter diabetes. “The donors were fantastic,” says Vlahos. “They were very engaging and they stimulated some great discussions on the translational potential of our work.”

Afshar, who is in Professor Penney Gilbert’s group, showcased a device that allows him to study muscle contraction in a dish by measuring tension in stem cell-derived muscles. And Sharma, whose PhD advisor is Professor Ben Blencowe, took the visitors to the Center’s recently upgraded DNA sequencing center, a key facility she uses often in her research on how cells interpret information in the genome. “It was great talking to the donors about our work and seeing them really excited about it,” says Sharma. “And it was great to hear about Dr. Dorrington. She was an inspiring figure and clearly her influence has gone beyond her lifetime.”

“It was a great experience to meet some of the amazing students who have benefited from the award and listen to their passion as they described the incredible innovations driving their research at the Donnelly Centre,” says Jon Dorrington. “The experience was a great reminder of why we set-up the award – to continue our Mom’s spirit of supporting graduate students and their research.”

Learn more about the 2018 Dorrington award winners and their research.

Over the past 10 years, the Jennifer Dorrington Award has provided nearly $38,000 in financial support for 25 scientists, many of whom went to do postdoctoral training in leading research institutions in the world. These scientists come from a range of research backgrounds with the goal of making discoveries which can transform our understanding of biology and medicine.

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