December 4, 2002


news briefs
photo: Chris Shepherd

This prof could save your life

E. coli research results in prestigious award

Anna King, Ubyssey

VANCOUVER (CUP) — Dr. Brett Finlay’s research on ‘hamburger disease,’ the illness caused by Escherichia coli contamination, has garnered him the one of the University of British Columbia’s most prestigious academic honours.
The UBC professor is working on a vaccine that would prevent tragedies like the one at Walkerton, Ontario that killed seven people two years ago.
The 43-year-old, who Dr. Indira Samarasekera, vice-president (research), called “one of the top researchers in Canada and the world,” was named the Peter Wall Distinguished Professor earlier this month.
The professorship was created to foster innovative and interdisciplinary research through a gift from Vancouver businessman Peter Wall, and provides salary support for a five-year period with the possibility of renewal. This is the third such professorship awarded.
“Professor Finlay is an extraordinarily talented scientist with a very creative outlook,” Samarasekera said. “He is a great example of what a scientist should be.”
Finlay’s idea, which came to him while he was running, is to vaccinate the cows that lie at the root of E. coli contamination instead of the humans who contract the disease through tainted water or meat. It’s this idea that he hopes will reduce the uncommon but highly dangerous outbreaks of hemolytic uremic syndrome, or ‘hamburger disease.’
“This is huge,” said Finlay about receiving the award. “The Peter Wall Institute is a really special place at the University of British Columbia.”
It’s additionally special, he added, because the last individual to hold the professorship was the late acclaimed biochemist Dr. Michael Smith, a mentor to Finlay. In fact, one of the few things in Finlay’s new office in the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies is a photograph of the smiling Smith.
Annick Gautier, a doctoral student in Finlay’s laboratory, said she doesn’t know anyone more deserving of the award.
“He’s incredibly dedicated and a great person,” Gautier said. She also cited, as an example of his generosity, his practice of recommending other laboratory members to present research on his behalf at conferences around the world, something not all professors do.
In addition to running a research laboratory and overseeing 25 graduate and post doctoral students, Finlay teaches an introductory class in microbiology to medical students.
Education is something Finlay feels strongly about.
“I think public education is very important. We’re paid by the taxpayers to basically play, and should you be working on something applied I think it’s your duty to get it out there,” he said.
In that vein, in 1999 Finlay presented the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Holiday Lectures, which were broadcast live on the Internet to 15,000 North American high schools.
“I love talking to high-school students or undergrads and opening up a whole new world for them,” he said. “The good thing about what I work on is that it’s easy to tell people about it. People get bacterial diseases; it’s a concern, whether it’s sexually transmitted diseases, or tuberculosis, or skin infections, even pimples on your face are due to bacterial infections.”

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