From our lab to yours: empowering leadership through ONDRI

Mar 7, 2022 | Blog, ONDRI Stories

“It may in fact be utterly impossible to be successful without helping others to become successful.” – Maya Angelou

ONDRI has provided an environment ripe for collaboration since its establishment in 2011. In this post, we profile two ONDRI Scholars, researchers who have landed up working together again at McGill University, expanding their goals that were born through their work with ONDRI.

Through sharing their story, they are hoping to propel the careers of young female scientists, particularly women of colour.

Control centre of the body

The brain is the control centre of the body; it orchestrates many of the functions that occur throughout the body. For example, it helps us to understand what we see, hear, or sense in other ways. This incredible achievement is facilitated through synapses, or microscopic gaps, that transmit messages between the billions of neurons within the brain, to those in other parts of the central nervous system.

The brain is the most complex organ of the body. This complexity is a key reason why collaboration is such an important part of achieving success in brain research.

Brain disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases, result from a combination of frequently inter-related systems that are functioning sub-optimally. The source of a particular dysfunction in this complex system is often difficult to isolate. No individual, no matter what their specialty, can understand everything that is occurring to cause the disorder. It takes a team to try to solve this complexity.

Our featured team

Sali Farhan, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Human Genetics at McGill University; a founding Scientific Director of The Neuro’s Bioinformatics Core, and she is also a Clinical Molecular Geneticist at McGill University Health Centre.

Allison Dilliott, Ph.D., is post-doc researcher working in Sali’s lab. Both Sali and Allison had their professional start in Dr. Robert Hegele’s lab at Western University, completing their graduate studies working with ONDRI’s Foundational Study data.

“For my ONDRI research, I would diligently mine the patients’ genomic data and identify genetic variants that were unique to the patients. The ability to decode the single genetic cause out of 3 billion possibilities was an incredible experience,” said Sali.

Karen Van Ooteghem PhD

Sali continues: “This detective work was enhanced by collaboration. It really takes a village to solve these complex debilitating diseases, and the ONDRI team came together to advance our collective knowledge and contribute to solving the complexity of these diseases.”

Working together once more

When Sali was looking for someone to join her team at McGill, she looked no further than her old colleague, Allison. Sali knew that Allison had the experience and the exposure required to hit the ground running, based on their work together at ONDRI. Allison, who had just defended her Ph.D. thesis, was ready for her next move and jumped at the opportunity.

“The confidence that the team at Western and ONDRI showed in me prepared me well for this important work we’re tackling now,” said Allison. “I was allowed to jump in, ask questions from experts and just do it. The exposure I had to so many types of data through ONDRI’s research meant that I lost the intimidation factor. I can now confidently play with any new data that I encounter”, she continued.

This cross-platform exposure also benefited the neurodegenerative diseases research community, through Allison and the ONDRI genomic platform’s many discoveries.

“I think there’s data, and then there’s information that comes from data. And then there’s knowledge that comes from information. And then, after knowledge, there is wisdom. I am interested in how to get from data to wisdom.” – Toni Morrison

ONDRI has created an environment where people can learn, dream, thrive, and build the experiential base that allows them to move on to exciting scientific careers, both within ONDRI and beyond. This is a result of both the culture, created by design (i.e., employing Ontario Brian Institute’s “open science” mantra), and exposure to ONDRI multi-modal, multi-nodal Foundational study data.

At McGill, Sali’s lab is broadly interested in resolving the genomic signature of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a hugely complex neurodegenerative disease. Using a multi-omics approach, the McGill lab is focused on identifying novel genetic associations, gensets, and pathways implicated in neurodegeneration. In this way, they will be able to expand the clinical grade genetic tests available for patients with neurodegeneration.

ONDRI is pleased to have supported the early training of these next generation of scientists, who are helping lead the charge in tackling neurodegenerative disease research.

These two female leaders are showing the world how to generate wisdom from data.

This story is part of a series focusing on accomplishments and impact by ONDRI Scholars. More here.

OBI through its Brain-CODE neuroinformatics platform has released the baseline data from ONDRI’s deeply phenotyped, cross-disease Foundational Study.