Sep 20, 2018

Inaugural Research Excellence Awards Recognise Collaborative Science

Awards, Trainees
collage of winners headshots
By Jovana Drinjakovic

The Donnelly Centre is delighted to announce that Thomas Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis and Wei Zhang are the inaugural recipients of Donnelly Centre Research Excellence Awards. The prize, which will be awarded annually, recognizes outstanding postdoctoral researchers pursuing collaborative and interdisciplinary research.

“We established the Research Excellence Awards to recognize our top postdoctoral fellows and research associates who are tackling important questions in biology through collaborative research both within the Centre and in the wider research community,” says Brenda Andrews, University Professor and Director of the Donnelly Centre. “Thomas and Wei are highly deserving first recipients of this award - both have pursued exciting research projects in the Donnelly, which I am confident will form the basis for successful careers as independent researchers.”

The decision to reward Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis and Zhang was made by the Selection Committee, whose members are: Charlie Boone, Principal Investigator, Ulrich Braunschweig, Research Associate in Ben Blencowe’s lab, Laura Prochazka, Punit Saraon and Nick Stepankiw, Postdoctoral Research fellows in Peter Zandstra, Igor Stagljar and Tim Hughes’ labs, respectively.

“I'm very honoured that I have been selected for a Donnelly Centre Excellence Award. It is wonderful to receive this recognition based on highly productive collaborative research projects I have enjoyed working on during the past several years in the Donnelly Centre,” says Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Blencowe lab who plans to establish an independent research career to study the genetic basis of brain development and disorders.

"Thomas and Wei are highly deserving first recipients of this award - both have pursued exciting research projects in the Donnelly, which I am confident will form the basis for successful careers as independent researchers" - Brenda Andrews, University Professor and Director of the Donnelly Centre

During his postdoc, Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis developed a much-needed CRISPR-based tool to study the differential functions of multiple products of genes and to explore the functional relationship between different genes. Thanks to a process known as alternative splicing, there are many more gene products (RNA and protein variants) in the cell than there are genes in the genome. During alternative splicing, segments of the RNA produced from a gene are spliced together in diverse combinations so that one gene can give rise to multiple and functionally distinct protein products. Up until now, there was no effective way to systematically study the function of protein variants but thanks to Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis’s new tool this is now possible.

Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis developed the method while working with other labs in the Centre and across U of T. “The best thing about the Donnelly Centre is its highly collaborative atmosphere,” says Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis. “My research has highly benefited from a strong collaboration I have established with Jason Moffat's lab. This collaborative environment does not stop at the door step of the Donnelly Centre but expands into the neighbouring institutes,” he added referring to his work with Anne-Claude Gingras, Sabine Cordes and Graham Collingridge, Senior Investigators at Sinai Health System’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute and Melanie Woodin, Professor at U of T’s Department of Cell and Systems Biology.

Gonatopoulos-Pournatzis credits his advisor, Ben Blencowe, for his success. “Ben is a remarkable scientist and also a great mentor,” he says. “In Ben’s lab I learned to focus on important and timely research questions and to establish collaborations so as to bring expertise from different fields into my own research as required.”

Wei Zhang won the Research Excellence Award for the research conducted jointly in Professors Sachdev Sidhu and Jason Moffat’s labs where he was first a postdoctoral research fellow and then a research associate. As a protein engineer, Zhang developed a new tool that allowed him to target precise proteins in cells to, for example, spur enzymes into action or switch them off altogether. The tool has already shown promise in creating potential new anti-viral and anti-cancer therapeutics.

Learn more about Wei Zhang’s research on creating proteins that can battle the deadly MERS virus

During postdoc, Zhang received prestigious awards for his protein engineering work, including a Mitacs Outstanding Innovation Award and a Next Generation of Scientist award from the Cancer Research Society and forged a number of collaborations in Canada and abroad.

New approach to Ebola, SARS leads to research award - read more about Zhang’s protein engineering work in Toronto Star

Zhang has since moved on to the University of Guelph where he established an independent research group in which he will continue to apply protein engineering to studying cancer and developing new therapeutics.

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