CMMT Newsletter January 2021

Bruce’s message

Happy new year all!

I hope everyone had a restful holiday season and was able to connect with family and friends in some way, even if not in person. Like all of you, I am glad to see 2020 in the rear-view mirror and am looking forward to a much more productive and social 2021. The arrival of effective vaccines demonstrates what science can achieve when it is funded and we work together. It also gives us something to look forward to this year: the possibility that our work and social lives may return to something close to normal pre-pandemic life, including some much-needed face-to-face interactions, and maybe even travel to a conference.

Despite the hurdles thrown at us by the pandemic, we managed to make great strides this past year in building CMMT community, including this quarterly newsletter and an updated website. The Casual Meetings of Minds (CMMTalks) series has been a fantastic success, with well-attended sessions and outstanding presentations. And I was amazed at the diversity of hobbies and talents amongst CMMT personnel at our holiday talent show in December, including everything from mountain bike riding to equestrian to gardening to eating a banana with one’s feet!? If you didn’t participate, I encourage you to develop a new talent in 2021! All of these activities were spearheaded by our new CMMT Trainee Committee, an enthusiastic group of CMMT post-docs and grad students who are planning even more exciting initiatives for 2021.

Faculty will also be busy this year with a major chair recruitment planned, as well as strategic planning and visioning to help guide our growth over the next few years.

Stay safe and I look forward to connecting with you all, virtually or in person, soon.


Inspiring Tomorrow: The importance and fun of outreach

Ground breaking research into the development of treatment for a rare form of congenital blindness, aniridia, is currently underway in Dr. Elizabeth Simpson’s lab at CMMT. Recently, Dr. Simpson participated in a podcast discussing her research and the role of CRISPR and genome editing therapies focused on the search for a cure. The podcast is highly informative and stimulating. One can’t help but be inspired by it, which, in some ways, may be as important as the research itself. Inspiring the next generation of scientists as well as those who have recently embarked or are well-established on their scientific paths, is critical. After all, everything begins with inspiration and it’s through outreach that inspiration can take root, treatments be found and, by way of example, vaccines developed.

Notably, outreach is central to the CMMT as it was set up and to its mission. It is one of the three components upon which faculty are evaluated, namely publications, funding, and outreach. “Obviously publications and funding are critical. But outreach is their equal,” Dr. Simpson said. “It’s never easy or convenient but people make time for it. Doing the podcast was fun.”

One of the issues with outreach is that it takes time away from already crowded schedules. However, there are many ways in which to do outreach and Dr. Simpson thinks communicating that to her students is important. “While outreach can be standard teaching it is expected to be much more than that,” she said. “One of the things I try to teach my students is to choose audiences for their outreach that are important to them, for example First Nations, women, or toddlers. This helps instill a sense of accomplishment and community when they contribute.”

In addition to choosing an audience, selecting a means or methods of delivery also helps. Doing outreach doesn’t have to mean working with big groups. Newsletters and blogs are good platforms for outreach as is tutoring, which is outreach one-on-one. “One of my former technicians would go to the Philippines and tutor.” Dr. Simpson said. She visited a very poor community that had chosen one student who they thought would make it to college. “She would spend time tutoring that student in the sciences to help bring them up to the level where they would be accepted into that college,” Dr. Simpson explained.

Volunteering at Science World is also a good way to provide outreach. As one of the main science communicators in the city, they are always looking for volunteers and ideas for displays; how to make science hands on. “They always need our support,” Dr. Simpson said.

Another popular example is organizing or judging science fairs. “That’s a very common type of outreach. And obviously lots of fun,” she said.

It’s also important to be realistic about how much you can take on. “If you’re a PhD student, maybe doing something once a month or twice a year, or whatever you feel you can do and enjoy, is essential. But don’t let it drop to zero.

Bearing all this in mind, being gracious when approached to do outreach is important. “It has likely taken some bravery on the part of the person asking so it’s important to accept the invitation in that spirit.”

At the end of the day, outreach is part of being a scientist at all levels. “It’s good for your communications skills and you learn, in some cases, how to speak well to the lay audience,” Dr. Simpson said. “You’re actually practicing your scientific skills.” And, in so doing, lighting a spark.

Charting a New Course

In February 2019, Solenne Correard, PhD, relocated from France where she had trained in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics at the University de Rennes, to join the Wasserman lab at the CMMT. Seeking to pursue her postdoctoral studies in genetic diagnoses and gene regulation, Solenne became involved in a ground-breaking project that not only provides a wealth of learning, but also could change the way Indigenous peoples receive medical care for genetic disorders.

Called the Silent Genomes Project, the four-part initiative coordinates with First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners to address the genomic divide by reducing access barriers to diagnosis of genetic disease in Indigenous children. Solenne’s role is working on the development of an Indigenous Background Variant Library (IBVL), a database of genetic variation from a diverse group of ~1500 Indigenous participants.

“I was amazed by the project,” Solenne said. She has a keen interest in history and thanks to the rest of the Silent Genomes team, she was able to learn more about Indigenous history. “The more I learned the more I wanted to know. That’s how I initially became involved in the project.”

The awareness of a genomic divide between Indigenous individuals and other populations resulted from previous genetic studies. Such studies sequenced the DNA of children with rare diseases in order to provide diagnoses and, where possible, to identify treatments. “In such studies, background variant libraries are used to filter out the variants that are frequent in a control population, so unlikely to be implicated in a rare disease,” Solenne said. “However, the lack of Indigenous genomic data in Background Variant Libraries make these variants libraries less efficient for the diagnosis of Indigenous children affected with a rare disease, and that needed to be addressed,” Solenne said. Consequently, Dr. Wyeth Wasserman reached out to Dr. Laura Arbour and Dr. Nadine Caron and work got underway to initiate the Silent Genomes Project.

The project is dynamic and continually evolving in partnership with the Indigenous communities. “They are currently establishing the steering committee” Solenne said. “All members of the steering committee are Indigenous. They will guide the development of the IBVL, and provide cultural oversight for the use of it.” The research team will work with the members of the committee to inform on research processes and clinical implications in a neutral way so that the committee can provide perspective about the best ways to proceed, she explained.

Currently, the terms of reference for the steering committee are being written, which will set out the project expectations and guide the research to ensure it’s conducted in a culturally safe way. Once the steering committee is ready, and only if they approve, DNA sequencing can begin. “For my part of the project, which involves creating the background variant library, we don’t yet have any data,” Solenne said. “I’ve been here for nearly two years and I still don’t have any data. This is not what most post-docs would hope for but given the potential outcomes and everything that I have learnt so far, I know it will be worth the wait. We do expect to sequence the first dataset early next year, but again, that’s entirely up to the steering committee.”

This two-year preparatory period has provided Solenne with some interesting insights. “The project has taught me that timelines are very western,” she said. This also means there is no firm timeline for the project. “We will have the data once the Indigenous participants feel safe, everything is secure and they still want to proceed,” she said. “If they decide at any point they no longer wish to continue, then the project will stop. They are in full control.”

Solenne’s interest in this area is not new. There is a lack of Indigenous representation in background variant libraries globally. “Similar initiatives are underway with other Indigenous populations around the world, such as the Māori-led Aotearoa Variome initiative in New-Zealand,” Solenne said. “In order to learn more about the way Indigenous research is conducted around the world, I have attended conferences in Greenland and New-Zealand. Both conferences were life-changing experiences.”

When she’s not pursuing her studies, Solenne also works as a member of the CMMT Trainee Committee. “The labs here are very isolated from one another. Where I was in France the labs were far more connected. I cannot imagine being a grad student without friends in other labs. I joined the Committee to try and bring people together,” she said. 

Like many people working abroad during the pandemic, Solenne will not be traveling home for the holidays. She is looking forward to experiencing a Canadian Christmas and grateful to be part of Silent Genomes and for all she has learned so far. “I grew so much as a result of learning about Indigenous strength and resilience,” she said.  “I hope that I can give back through my work on this project”

For more information about the project, the team involve and the funders, please, visit


Dr. Michael Hayden, Soroka Humanitarian Award,

The Kobor lab was awarded a Spring 2020 CIHR Project Grant entitled “Childhood Epigenetic Age Deviations and Developmental Differences (CEAD3).” CMMT Co-investigators: Dr. Chaini Konwar (Supervisor: Dr. Kobor) and Dr. Sarah Merrill (Supervisor: Dr. Kobor). $1,067,176 / 5 years & CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development and Human’s & the Microbiome programs, a Manulife CIFAR Population Health & Well-being Grant entitled “A bio-ecological integrative approach to understand the “hidden costs” of COVID-19 on children”  Amount: Canadian $50,000CAD; Funding Term: July 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021

Caitlyn Xu (Taubert Lab), the Mille Ralph Drabinsky Graduate Scholarship in Medicine (FoM Graduate Student Award)

Judith Yan (Taubert Lab), the Edward Squires Memorial Fellowship


Caron NS, Banos R, Yanick C, Aly AE, Byrne L, Smith ED, Xie Y, Smith SEP, Potluri N, Findlay Black H, Casal L, Ko S, Cheung D, Kim H, Seong IS, Wild EJ, Song J, Hayden MR, Southwell A. Mutant huntingtin is cleared from the brain via active mechanisms in Huntington disease. J Neurosci. 2020 Dec 10:JN-RM-1865-20. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1865-20.2020. Online ahead of print. PMID: 33310753

Schmidt ME, Caron NS, Aly AE, Lemarie FL, Dal Cengio L, Ko Y, Ngyen B, Lazic N, Raymond LA. Hayden MR. DAPK1 promotes extrasynaptic GluN2B phosphorylation and striatal spine instability in the YAC128 mouse model of Huntington disease. Front Cell Neurosci. 2020 Nov 5;14:590569. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2020.590569. eCollection 2020. PMID: 33250715

Wright GEB, Findlay Black H, Collins JA, Gall-Duncan T, Caron NS, Pearson CE, Hayden MR. Interrupting sequence variants and age of onset in Huntington’s disease: clinical implications and emerging therapies. Lancet Neurol. 2020 Nov;19(11):930-939. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(20)30343-4. PMID: 33098802


We are looking for volunteers!

CMMT will be partnering with the BCCHRI Research Education Team for their 2021 Mini Med School Symposium.

The CMMT Spring Symposium will take place the morning of Thursday, March 4th.  We will offer live trainee sessions from 10 – 11:30 AM and also host subsequent sessions to allow us to continue to offer this unique experience to more high school students.  

Volunteers needed: Trainee volunteers will present for approximately 20 minutes followed by a 10-minute question & answer period.  The sessions will be narrated by a meeting moderator and viewers  can submit questions to the trainees in the chat room during the live presentation.

Volunteers are invited to be creative; the content is up to you!  Demo a lab experiment, talk about your personal journey into science, talk about what drew you to UBC, talk about challenges you’ve overcome in the pursuit of your love of science – the list is almost endless!

The sessions will be recorded and shared with high schools across BC.

Join us in our celebration of Spring and support our trainees as they demonstrate their love for science! If you are interested in volunteering, please email for more information.  

Did You Know?

  • The first Canadian case of the novel coronavirus was reported by Health Canada on January 25, 2020 in Toronto.
  • Chinese New Year 2021 – Year of the Ox is on Friday, February 12. Gong Xi Fa Cai!
  • The Spring Season starts on Saturday, March 20.
Our next newsletter will be published in early April 2021.
Submit storyline suggestions to by March 15, 2021.
Submit awards, events, publications, kudos, etc. to up to until March 31, 2021.
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