Passion fueled research

It has been said, “the heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, and gives you a sense of meaning, joy and passion.” For Mellissa Mann, PhD, that pursuit was science, and specifically genetics.

She caught the bug, so to speak, at an early age, when she cloned carrots for a high school science project. Now an Associate Professor with the Departments of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and Biochemistry, she is studying epigenetics.

It was during the transition from her undergraduate program to her master’s at Western University that Mann fell in love with epigenetics.

At the time, it was a relatively undiscovered frontier. She pursued it vigorously, completing her PhD at the University of Toronto and her postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mann then returned to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Western because it offered her everything she needed to follow her research passion. “For me, it (Schulich Medicine & Dentistry) has been phenomenal. I love being in my position. I came back to Western because of the calibre of research, as well as the fact that all of my interests were covered in the lab whether it was genetics, developmental biology or reproductive biology,” she said.

She’s grateful to her colleagues who have provided such a strong network and who are there to provide advice, review papers and collaborate on grant requests.

Today, she is trying to understand the molecular aspects of epigenetic regulation, and how they relate to the embryo.

Specifically, she is looking at the effects of assisted reproduction on genomic imprinting, and whether or not the manipulation of eggs, sperm and early embryos during assisted reproduction change imprinting and the development of the organism.

With assisted reproduction, complications such as multiple births, premature birth, low birth weight, as well as disorders such as Angelman Syndrome, a neurological disorder, and Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome, an over-growth disorder, can occur. As assisted reproduction is steadily rising, Mann’s research has important ramifications.

Mann is well supported by a high-performing team comprised of a lab technician, four PhD trainees, a postdoctoral fellow and a co-op student, who each contribute to the creative and dynamic lab environment. “I’m the type of person who works hard, is passionate and sets a high bar. The people in my lab are driven, enthusiastic and have the same love,” she said.

Success has come early for this young research leader. Recently, she gave a talk at the Nobel Symposium for Sir Robert Edwards at the University of Cambridge, the father of assisted reproduction. She also has numerous publications to her credit.

Despite the tremendous work environment and her many successes, Mann is no stranger to the challenges of research, particularly as it relates to funding.

Her lab is continuing its work thanks to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding, as well as donor support for her postdoctoral fellow, which is provided through the Children’s Health Foundation.

Mann believes that funding basic science continues to be critical. “People and politicians are putting emphasis into research that has an outcome in five-years. While this is important, people are loosing track that all of the medicine today has been built upon the building blocks of science and discovery developed throughout many decades. If we don’t continue to build on the basic science we won’t be able to make the major medical breakthroughs of the future,” she said.

Continuously inspired by what might be, Mann spends a lot of time trying to anticipate how things might work, and how a new piece of information relates to what she is already studying.

“Science,” she said, “is often thought to be logical and methodical, but there is a creative side to it that comes from trying to figure out new ways to answer questions or make linkages.”

Looking to the future, Mann hopes her research will contribute to the decrease or elimination of health issues or disorders often related to assisted reproduction, and that it will advance the understanding of genomic imprint regulation in early embryos.

As a role model and mentor, she encourages her students to follow their passion and be flexible, “it’s often the pathway that you aren’t seeing that can be the most adventurous and rewarding,” she said.