The modern laboratory is built on collaborations at many levels

Chris Garbutt
Image of Patrick McGowan in the Centre for Environmental Epigenetics and Development

Science is getting better and better at generating information. But what do we do with that information once it’s been collected?

It’s a growing challenge. At the new Centre for Environmental Epigenetics and Development in the Science Wing at UTSC—and in an increasing number of modern laboratories—the answer is collaboration.

The centre, which previously housed a laboratory that evaluated the diversity of flying fish, is home to three principal investigators who share laboratory equipment and office space. It was repurposed and renovated for its current use in 2013.

“Our work is more and more driven by large amounts of data,” says Patrick McGowan, whose lab is one of three in the centre. The other two professors are Rudy Boonstra and Malcolm Campbell, who is also UTSC’s Vice-Principal, Research.

Epigenetics is an exciting and relatively new field. When scientists finished mapping the human genome a little over a decade ago, it was an important discovery but generated more questions than answers.
For example, if identical twins have the exact same genetic makeup, why is it that they so often have different health outcomes? The field is devoted to understanding the biomechanisms that might change the way genes work.

Collaboration is essential to gathering the data McGowan needs. He is currently working on studies with partners at the three U of T campuses, McMaster University, Université de Montréal, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Sorting through the vast amount of data these studies generate “requires money and different kinds of knowledge,” McGowan says. So the space he shares with his fellow researchers allows them to pool resources, both on high-tech equipment and on training people with different skill sets.

“Now we can start to make sense of the data we’re generating,” he says. “We can do almost anything we need to here.”

The common space also has the benefits that come from just running into each other day to day. By being in the same room, says McGowan, “we can share and get inspiration from each other’s work.”