Celebrating a lifetime of their research

The Hellmuth Prize for Achievement in Research spotlights faculty members with outstanding international reputations for their contributions in research. Widely recognized as the top research honour at The University of Western Ontario, two prizes are awarded annually, one in the area broadly defined as the natural sciences and engineering, one in the social sciences and humanities.

What I’ve learned

Michael Groden, Department of English, Faculty of Arts & Humanities

GRODEN

GRODEN

Maybe he was never cut out for math. Michael Groden intended to study just that when he started at Dartmouth College, but James Joyce and his iconic work, Ulysses, got in the way. In the fall term of his second year, Groden encountered the work, and it resonated – to say the least. Today, he is one of the world’s foremost Ulysses scholars. Following his PhD at Princeton University, he began his career at Western in 1975. His latest book, ‘Ulysses’ in Focus: Genetic, Textual, and Personal Views, has been praised worldwide. What has James Joyce, and a life as an academic, taught Groden? His thoughts, in his own words, follow.

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I tried to read it over the summer because I knew it was this big 800-page thing that I was going to have to read in three weeks at the beginning of the term. And as what happens with a lot of people, I got to Page 50, the beginning of the third chapter just stops everybody cold, because it is this young university graduate’s thinking and his head is just stuffed full of philosophy and theology. It’s almost impenetrable unless you know Aristotle and Aquinas. So I put the book down as almost everyone does.

Then this class started and it met four times a week for an hour each time, and so we were going through the book really, really quickly.

As soon as we got to the fourth chapter, the one beyond this one, there is a new character who gets introduced, a very different kind of man, a more middle-aged man, not a university graduate, just a very different kind of thing. And I just started to fall in love with it when I started to read about Leopold Bloom. By the middle of the next week, when we were about halfway through the book, I was just totally hooked by the book. And that was it.

I am still trying to figure that out. It was a combination of things like the challenge of reading the book and how much fun the book is to read; the book is a lot of fun in places. And then there was other kinds of stuff. Here is a middle-aged man, a Jewish man (and I grew up Jewish) who presents quite a different image of a Jewish man than you were getting in literature at that time. … There was something about him that made me really like him as a character. And then there is this incredible thing that you follow his thinking throughout the entire day and you end up knowing him better than you can ever know any other person, because nobody would say aloud the kinds of stuff Joyce shows him thinking. And of course, in some ways, you know him better than you could ever know yourself. There is a kind of clarity to his thinking, a kind of patterning that you could spent a lifetime trying to know in ourselves.

Every time I turn to it, it still doesn’t bore me.

I am still quite jazzed up by Ulysses. If I get bored with it, I will stop.

The lessons are actually harder to put into practice than they are just to take. One of the wonderful things about the book is that it’s about a couple of characters that don’t get defeated by things in their lives. Plenty of sad things have happened in Leopold Bloom’s life, yet nothing really ever defeats him. He rebounds all the time. He lives with an interest and vitality that just never, ever stops. I find him a wonderful model; it’s not always easy to be that person, but he strikes me as the kind of person I wouldn’t mind being if I could be somebody.

Here I am, I was 19-years-old, a kid from a working-class family. I was the first from my family to go to university. Now I’m embarked on becoming an English major, which nobody in my family has any idea what this is or what kind of job is at the end of it all. And then I become fascinated by this picture, a man who lives in exactly the kind of world I was trying to leave.

It is really nice to keep encountering students one year after another, to just keep meeting people at that stage of their life where they are sort-of certain where they are directed toward. Not always quite clear, but still eager to learn stuff.

I have absolutely no regrets, no second-guessing about choosing this as a life.

 

What I’ve learned

Ann Chambers, Department of Oncology, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

CHAMBERS

CHAMBERS

Ann Chambers always thought research was “nice.” Raised in Boston, she completed her undergraduate degree in botany at Duke University, where she would later complete a PhD in zoology looking at cells moving around in a sea urchin embryo. Afterward, she came north to Toronto for postdoc work with cancer researcher Dr. Victor Ling, convincing him the cells running around inside an embryo were sort of like cells moving around in a body when they metastasize. That was her first run-in with cancer as a research focus. She has never looked back. Today, the Canada Research Chair in Oncology continues to hunt new ways of looking at how cancer spreads and how to prevent it. What has the hunt for this elusive prey, and a life as an academic, taught Chambers? Her thoughts, in her own words, follow.

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I am a little bit embarrassed. I have all these fantastic colleagues, and I am sort of the front person, but it’s all of them doing the stuff that allows me to do what I am doing.

Metastasis is what kills patients. The goal of what we’re trying to do is understand metastasis to learn to prevent it, delay it or treat it. That’s the underlying reason for what we do.

London is a better size for clinical interactions; we’re sort of the right size, rather than too big. So my first job was in London, and I’m still here. It wasn’t part of the grand design. But the reason I have stayed is because of the collaborators. It is such an interactive city; it is the right size to form the interactions; and people are receptive to interactions.

It’s so complicated. It’s such a complicated disease. I finally realized cancer is not one disease; it’s many diseases; and it’s many diseases over time. … The cancer is evolving. It’s changing over time. So it’s not a static entity. It’s a complex and changing entity which means there’s a whole lot of scope for research. And right now is a really, really exciting time to do research because there is so much technology that can bring to bear on it. … We have hopes of sorting out the complexity.

We’re going in the right direction. My concern is people will get inpatient that we’re not solving the problem because it is not a problem, it’s many problems. We’ve solved some problems already.

One thing that really bugs me is that I can prevent one-third of all cancer deaths. Just get people to stop smoking. Prevention. Yes, that is important, but we already know a lot about prevention.

We’re making a difference. We’re going in the right direction. It’s really complicated. It’s really interesting. But I think it is also the interactions with the patients.

It’s a four-dimensional disease – the different sites of origin, and each one of those has its own molecular path. The details of each disease are different. And then the details of each person’s disease are different because they have their own genetic makeup, their own history, their own lifestyle. And then cancer changes. So, at one point in time, it’s one disease, and if you look at it later it may have changed its markers and may not respond to the drugs you give it any more. It can get drug-resistant. It can evolve. It can progress.

We’re not going to cure the whole thing ever. People are always going to get mutations. But we can get better at figuring out exactly what treatment is going to work for a particular person at a particular time.

Be trust-worthy. Work hard. Go in the right direction.

I get to interact with really smart people who have really great ideas. Research is a really creative process. It is presented as a sort-of logical, scientific approach, but the heart of it is creativity, figuring out what to do, going on hunches, imputing a lot of information and then making a judgment based on not enough information, but this just seems like the smart direction to go in.