Meet the PI2016-12-20T15:15:59+00:00
Dr. Jean-Philippe Julien in Profile. Scientist, Molecular Structure & Function | Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Immunology, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from and where did you study?

I am originally from Baie-Comeau in North-Eastern Quebec. This name might ring a bell to some, as it’s the small town where our former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is from. I remember when I was young, that was our claim to fame!

After high school, I moved to Victoria, B.C. to study at the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. I then completed my undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at McGill University and my PhD from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto (UofT) under the supervision of Dr. Emil Pai. After that, I pursued a postdoctoral fellowship at The Scripps Research Institute in sunny (and dry!) San Diego, California, under the supervision of Ian Wilson. After my fellowship, I applied for a position at SickKids, and here I am!

2. What are you researching right now?

My research focuses on the structural biology of immune receptors. I am particularly interested in immune receptors on the B cell – a key component of our adaptive immune system – which produces antibodies that protect us against diseases. The B cell facilitates this process through its main surface receptor called the B cell Receptor (BCR). My primary focus is to look at how, at the atomic level, the BCR interacts with other components of the immune system and with pathogens that invade our bodies. My ultimate goal is to use this information to design better vaccines. A related goal of mine is to develop therapeutics – using atomic-level blueprints – against B cell sub-populations that become dysfunctional, like in cases of leukemia or lupus or arthritis.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist, and why?

I look up to all scientists who, at one point or another, combined scientific creativity with social involvement.Einstein, Szilard, Fermi and Oppenheimer are up there, of course, because of their groundbreaking creativity, relentless efforts and ability to connect their scientific discoveries in nuclear energy to implications for the general public in a time of war.

4. What in your opinion is the single most important scientific breakthrough, and why?

I believe that the discovery of vaccines revolutionized medicine. Recently, there was a Special Feature of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that celebrated the 100th Anniversary of Vaccines.

It has always been inspiring for me to delve deeper into the history of vaccines, such as Edward Jenner’s discovery of the smallpox vaccine, which completely shifted global health strategies and subsequently allowed us to eradicate many childhood diseases. Vaccines are powerful educational tools to train our immune system – much like getting trained in the classroom to become more effective at our jobs. It gives us a boost and better chance of survival! I don’t know if it’s the single most important breakthrough but at least in relation to my interests, vaccines are a very important one.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?

Sometimes I wish more of my time was spent inside the lab! Transitioning to a Principal Investigator position has meant more time at the desk and less at the bench… I think many of us choose this career because we are passionate and don’t ever stop thinking about what we do, which means there really aren’t many times when the brain completely shuts off. A lot of my focus outside work is dedicated to my two sons, pitching baseballs in the backyard and stopping hockey shots in the basement! I am always amazed at how much they can learn. Their brain plasticity is just unbelievable!

6. Why SickKids?

I don’t know any other environment like SickKids where most people, if not everyone, is passionate about child health and go above-and-beyond to contribute. When I first visited SickKids, I felt an immediate sense of community because everyone is willing to help each other to achieve a common goal.

Being a father of two motivates me to work towards better health for children. There’s nothing like a walk through the hospital to motivate me and make me feel that our daily research has the potential to impact those who need it the most. SickKids has also the unique chance to be affiliated with UofT, arguably one of the most prolific research universities in the world.

7. Why science?

I think scientists are curious people to start with and I believe that science is a great path for satisfying your utmost curiosity. It takes a lot of perseverance, optimism and creativity (and a bit of stubbornness!), because a lot of what we try on a daily basis doesn’t work. I think those traits describe me pretty well and so this line of work aligns with my personality.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?

I think with every big question comes controversy, but also a great opportunity for breakthroughs. The biggest question I seek to answer through my research is: how can we vaccinate against pathogenic diversity? All current vaccines that protect us are against pathogens that are mostly static in sequence and structure.

When there is a lot of variability or diversity in the pathogen, like in HIV, Hepatitis C, malaria and influenza, our current technologies fail to elicit broadly protective immune responses by vaccination.

For example, the annual influenza vaccine is on average only 50 per cent efficacious and we need to modify and alter this vaccine yearly as circulating strains evolve. Of course, this is better than nothing! But it clearly highlights the challenges ahead to make it more efficacious and long-lasting.

There are many different schools of thought about how we should go about this. My strategy is to first increase our basic understanding of how the B cell works: how it becomes engaged, propagates its signals and matures to develop its high affinity against pathogens. With this information in hand, we can start to tweak these processes by engineering new vaccine technologies.

9. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?

The first thing to determine is: which kind of research career are you interested in? If you want to have your own lab and be at the forefront of research, it takes a certain personality to do so. I think having an endless passion for your research and an unwavering commitment to making discoveries are probably the two most important traits. Research is so diverse; there are several rewarding research careers to pursue. My main piece of advice is to learn to know yourself, your ambitions and identify where you want to contribute.

10. What does the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?

The building means a lot to me. When I was interviewing, it sent a clear message from the Research Institute that it is vested in creating a physical space to foster discovery. I think cutting-edge research happens when people collaborate, and the architects designed the building with that in mind. I often find myself coming across new features of the building. For example, lighting in the building is spectacular. It was very clever of the architects to give everyone access to the breath-taking views. Natural light creates an energizing work environment. Looking out the window from my office and the lab inspires a vision without boundaries.