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September 28, 2012

john roder

“Early on I decided that the unknown would be more interesting than the known. In research you’re always looking at the unknown. Every week I learn something new – it’s hard to get bored!”

That’s John Roder, one of Canada’s most successful research scientists, who continues to learn and discover while living with the harsh reality of Huntington’s disease (HD).

Roder grew up in rural southwestern Ontario and married his high school sweetheart. He started his undergraduate degree at Western planning to be a geologist. A course in parasitology piqued his interest in biology, and the interest has never abated.

He completed his PhD at Western, and then did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and University College London. Back in Canada, he worked at Queen’s University for six years before being recruited to join the Mt. Sinai Research Institute (now the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mt. Sinai Hospital). The Institute was a bold new concept that allowed brilliant minds like Roder’s to focus almost exclusively on research, while maintaining a university affiliation.

Roder’s father also suffered from HD, a devastating genetic disorder. Although Roder started his career in immunology, he became interested in the use of genetics to determine the basic cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying neurological disorders such as Huntington’s. When his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2000, Roder broadened his investigations to include mental illness. “In the beginning, it was discovery that drove my research,” he says. “Now that I’m older, half my motivation is my son, and the opportunity to make an impact in that field.”

As an immunologist, Roder contributed to the understanding of natural killer cells in recognizing and killing cancer cells. Among his many contributions in neurology, he expanded the understanding of the molecular mechanisms of learning, memory and curiosity, and helped identify a gene associated with schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. He has published more than 270 peer-reviewed papers and was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2010.

Although his HD symptoms limit speech and mobility, Roder is cheerful and energetic. For those around him, he is an inspiration. “It is truly an honor to have John as a colleague and friend,” says Dr. Jim Woodgett, a fellow scientist at Mt. Sinai. “He is an extraordinary man and a brilliant scientist.”

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