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Dr. Angie Brooks-Wilson: Building a Career from a Lifelong Curiosity about Science

October 8, 2014

Hi, I’m Angie Brooks-Wilson, and I lead a research laboratory within the Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency. I’m the only scientist in my family and have followed my curiosity since childhood, when I would find interesting plants, seeds and rocks, hunt for garden snakes and compare the patterns on their backs, and lie outside on our sun deck with binoculars looking for the seas on the moon. At the age of 12 I read an article about DNA in a National Geographic magazine, and decided that that was what I would work on. I have to thank my Dad for having that National Geographic subscription!

I grew up mainly in Burnaby and went to Simon Fraser University (SFU) for a BSc in Biochemistry. I did a co-op program (which provides work experience), and was thrilled to work with DNA in my final work term. In my last year at SFU, my grandmother died of cancer after many years living and struggling against the disease. I visited her often in her final weeks, and was horrified, angry and appalled by her experience as a cancer patient in 1984 (palliative care is much better now than it was then). During that same semester, a wonderful professor, “the other Dr. Mike Smith” at SFU let me design my own project and work in his lab. Mike worked on starfish, and I was interested in oncogenes (cancer genes), so it was agreed that I would figure out whether starfish have oncogenes (yes, they do). Being allowed to develop my own scientific question and design experiments was a great experience to have as an undergraduate, but the timing drove home the real purpose of research.

I continued to combine my interest in DNA with cancer research, and set about finding a lab to do graduate studies in. One of the professors I contacted was Dr. Tony Pawson, an oncogene researcher at UBC. He was becoming quite famous for his groundbreaking work, but was moving to Toronto. So I went too. After doing a Master’s degree on oncogenes, I returned to B.C. to work with Dr. Paul Goodfellow on hereditary cancers. We had the great fortune to contribute to the understanding of a hereditary cancer syndrome, and also developed some new methods for working with human DNA. After a few other adventures that took me to Seattle, San Diego and back to Vancouver, and a bumpy ride from academia to industry and back again, I joined the then new Genome Sciences Centre at the BC Cancer Agency in 2001.

My lab members and students and I work on finding out why some people develop cancers and others do not. We collect and analyze DNA samples from hundreds or thousands of cancer patients and compare them to ‘controls’ who don’t have cancer and we also work with families in which more than one person has cancer.

I love my job in part because as a Principal Investigator, I have the freedom to decide what questions I think are important, and design experiments to answer them (but questions about people, instead of starfish). I am also passionate about working at the BC Cancer Agency because the focus is on both care and research. Though I work behind the scenes, and like many other researchers I am essentially invisible to patients, my lab’s efforts are ultimately for the benefit of cancer patients (like my grandmother). I am proud that our mandate is to prevent, control and treat cancer in the whole population of B.C.  Part of that responsibility is doing research to understand cancer better so that we can prevent, control and treat it better. I’m very motivated by that.

Next week I will tell you how a research lab is a lot like a small business, and about my lab’s work on families with lymphoma and other cancers.