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
“Professor Finlay is an extraordinarily talented scientist
with a very creative outlook,” Samarasekera said.
“He is a great example of what a scientist should
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
“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.”