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Thriving on learning new things

Nathalie Berube, PhD

Nathalie Bérubé, PhD, thrives on learning new things.

Whether it’s in the lab working one-on-one with her graduate trainees and postdoctoral fellows, or at home reading about innovative technology and techniques, the Associate Professor in the Departments of Biochemistry and Paediatrics is constantly surrounding herself with new information to impact her research.

“This is an environment where I am always learning new things, trying new things and evolving to the next question,” Bérubé said. “I enjoy what I do so much that to me it’s also a hobby — when I get home at night, I’m still thinking about it all.”

Born and raised in a small French-Canadian town in Northern Ontario called Hearst, Bérubé knew from a young age that she needed to follow a career path that allowed her to indulge her curiousity. She decided to attend the University of Ottawa to complete her bachelor of science, as well as her PhD in biochemistry.

Bérubé went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, where she was looking at tumor suppressors in the field of aging. Throughout this training, she became very interested in chromatin structure, chromatin biology and chromosomes.

From there, she went back to the University of Ottawa to complete a second postdoctoral fellowship, this time focusing on a gene that causes intellectual disability in children — something she still partly focuses on to this day.

“In general, my lab is interested in why mutations in genes that disrupt chromatin structure in the brain often cause intellectual disability,” she explained. “We knockout genes in particular regions and cell types in the brain and look at their neurobehaviour to see the effects on learning and memory.” 

Bérubé’s team has seen some effects on memory, so they are now trying to determine what is happening to chromatin structure and gene expression that would explain this memory loss. 

Another aspect to Bérubé’s research is cancer and aging. Some of the genes they are working with are often lost in many types of cancer including brain cancer, so they are looking into the effects of this on brain tumors as well.

“If we can create a model that looks like those children who develop severe brain tumors, we could potentially start using that as a preclinical model to test and develop different drugs and therapies,” she explained.

Bérubé’s goal during the next 10 years is to really expand into each area of her research, so she can create the best models that can be used for pre-clinical assessment.

“Even though we may not completely understand how the work we are doing each day might help patients, we do know that all of the basic research we’re doing now could have a significant impact on those patients’ lives in the future,” she said. “That’s what makes this work exciting — that’s what makes it even more worthwhile.”