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Dr. Karen Colwill
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Dr. Karen Colwill

Dr. Karen Colwill – a traffic cop for grant applications, collaborative projects and masses of network biology data
by Sophie Lily Polan


dr. karen colwillAs a staff scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Karen Colwill is accustomed to many different roles.She initially came to the Institute in 1991 as a PhD student in the laboratory of Tony Pawson, before becoming a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. Her studies focused on signal transduction of the CLK1 protein kinase and yeast genetics. She next moved to the private sector to pursue proteomics. In 2002, she returned to the LTRI to help manage large collaborative grants, which led her to one of her current roles. Karen’s primary task is to manage the Network Biology Collaborative Centre (NBCC) that was formed in 2014. The NBCC merges the Institute’s world-class proteomics facility, high throughput screening centre and high content screening lab. The integration was designed to accelerate discovery by enabling scientists to move rapidly between the different technologies.


To facilitate the NBCC, Karen and her colleagues applied for external funding and are now one of ten technology platforms across Canada funded by Genome Canada (The Centre for Phenogenomics houses another of these groups in advanced mouse genetics and phenotyping). This allows them to provide their services not only to researchers at LTRI, but to extend their services across Canada and internationally. In addition to this direct service, the knowledge and technology development that the NBCC is advancing will benefit anybody in the scientific community. The Centre offers technical and experimental design advice to trainees and helps in trouble-shooting as well as in developing and applying analytical tools.


Another of Karen’s roles is working as a project manager for the larger grants for principal investigators in the LTRI systems biology group. For these collaborative grants, it is critical to have a project manager to keep everything on track. As the project manager, Karen is responsible for making sure the various subprojects move forward efficiently, for reporting to the granting agencies and monitoring the finances. Karen is responsible for multiple grants, including the one supporting the NBCC itself. There is a lot of organization and administration that goes into these complex grants, which is Karen’s forté. Some of the bigger grant applications can extend to 100 to 200 pages, so it’s important for it to be assembled and integrated by ever encroaching deadlines. While we often see the actual science being done, none of it would occur without these essential support activities (not to mention that the Principle Investigators loath filling in reports).

Karen is currently working with a wide variety of researchers assisting them with their studies. She is interested in protein kinases, particularly those implicated in cancer. This class of enzymes are key engines that modulate growth, proliferation and cellular regulation. The NBCC is analyzing samples from model cell lines treated with different drugs to patients going through treatment to determine how that impacts the activity of expressed kinases. Through use of technologies such as mass spectrometry and high throughput screening, this research is capable of monitoring thousands of proteins and to measure changes associated with certain types of cancer.


In terms of the future, Karen sees it becoming ever more precise. We are currently able to measure biological properties down to the level of single cells and have the ability to integrate a lot of different types of data. For example, information can be gleaned on what each protein binds to, what happens when a series of genes are knocked out, how essential these genes are and the subcellular localization of the proteins and how that changes in disease. As more people are having their genome sequenced, there is increasingly detailed data on mutations and other changes in genes that are associated with diseases. Integration of these complex and somewhat noisy (i.e. containing biological variations) data will be critical to pinpoint changes that might be actionable through targeting with new drugs.




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