Enhancing the Graduate Experience with Dr. John Vincent

Article by Sonja Elsaid

Graphic design by Amy Jiao

IMS has recently welcomed the new graduate coordinator, Dr. John Vincent. To get better acquainted with Dr. Vincent, IMS Magazine has interviewed him about his research interests and motivations for helping graduate students achieve their optimal educational performance at the University of Toronto.

After completing his B.Sc. in Biochemistry at Manchester University, Dr. John Vincent moved to London to work as a Laboratory Technician at the Charing Cross Hospital, which is one of the hospitals affiliated with the University of London. In his technician role, he focused on the genetic basis of atherosclerosis, which sparked his interest in pursuing genetics as a Ph.D. student at the Molecular Psychiatry laboratory of Dr. Hugh Gurling, at the Middlesex Hospital, University College London. “I decided to pursue academia because I was interested in genetics, and at that time, there were not many opportunities working in the industry in the genetics field. Only after the human genome was completely mapped did the pharmaceutical industry become interested in genetics. By this time, I was already a post-doctoral fellow pursuing academia”.

Photo Credit: CAMH

“I finished my Ph.D. in England and then traveled around central Asia for a couple of months, after which it seemed too unexciting to return to a mundane job in England. My decision to come to Toronto was facilitated by a friend working with Dr. Peter St. George Hislop, who suggested I apply for a post-doctoral position with Dr. Jim Kennedy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). During my Ph.D., I worked on the genetic basis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), specifically the fragile X syndrome, caused by DNA mutation of the FMR1 gene. Within the FMR1 gene, genetic segments called CGG triplet repeats are multiplied more than 200 times in those with fragile X syndrome. Given that Dr. Kennedy was interested in the possibility of trinucleotide repeat expansions in individuals with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Affective Disorder―a genetic phenomenon similar to the one in fragile X syndrome―I decided to join his lab. My second post-doctoral position was with Dr. Steve Scherer at the Hospital for Sick Children. In this role, I was able to resume my work on the genetics of ASD. A few years later, in 2002, I started my lab at CAMH.”

Dr. Vincent’s research currently provides a better understanding of genetic predispositions for neurodevelopmental disabilities, including ASD and Rett syndrome. Rett syndrome is a type of ASD characterized by defects in the X chromosomal gene MECP2, and as such, it affects girls almost exclusively. During development, individuals affected by Rett syndrome experience a loss of their communication skills and motor coordination, including purposeful hand movements. “We identified an alternative isoform of the Rett syndrome gene, MECP2, and evidence points to this being the disease-relevant isoform”. 

In addition, Dr. Vincent’s group attempted to identify autosomal recessive genes for neurodevelopmental disorders. “The most significant findings include the identification of many new genes causing intellectual disability disorders. The work was done by mapping genes from hundreds of families in Pakistan where multiple family members were affected. It led to the discovery of at least 40 new genes, including one for Joubert syndrome―a rare autosomal recessive disorder that affects regions of the brain such as the cerebellum, as well as eyes, and kidneys, and leads to poor muscle control, vision problems, and developmental delay.”

The clinical significance of Dr. Vincent’s work is mainly its utility for diagnostic in affected families. Dr. Vincent explained: “By identifying probable disease-causing mutations, we can provide clinicians and genetic counselors valuable information for the diagnosis and treatments of children with these rare neurodevelopmental disorders. This way, the parents and clinicians will better understand the disorder and what to expect as it progresses.” 

Before becoming an IMS Graduate Coordinator, Dr. Vincent was the Director of Research Training and Mentorship at CAMH. He was instrumental in helping graduate students and post-doctoral trainees navigate their fellowships at CAMH while helping to ensure that they are assigned to tasks that are appropriate and within the scope of their mandated training. Dr. Vincent was instrumental in raising the awareness that trainees are often pushed to assume various roles outside the scope of their training. As a result of Dr. Vincent’s efforts, his successor is currently working on implementing policies that will help ensure that the education of post-doctoral fellows stays on course.

Dr. Vincent accepted the role of the IMS Coordinator because of his previous dedication to helping students complete their post-graduate training at CAMH. “The IMS Coordinator’s role fits very nicely with my previous role,” he explained. “My role at IMS involves both administrative duties and student counseling. On the administrative side, I work on finetuning IMS policies and procedures, checking the course enrollment forms, and ensuring that students follow through with their thesis submissions. On the counseling side, I provide support and guidance to students related to their academic and interpersonal challenges, such as conflicts that may occur between them and their supervisors. I try to step in to resolve the issues.”

“Go to the Athletic Centre! Play frisbee in the King’s College Circle! Go for a coffee with your colleagues! Your graduate training is NOT incompatible with your life. For me, having a balance was important.”

-Dr. John Vincent

Dr. Vincent also offered a word of advice on succeeding in graduate school: “Spending time in the lab is all well and good, but not the best for your mental health and development. Go to the Athletic Centre! Play frisbee in the King’s College Circle! Go for coffee with your colleagues! Your graduate training is NOT incompatible with your life! For me, having a balance was important. I spent lots of time playing soccer and squash during my post-graduate training. You need a good balance between work and life to burn the candles on both ends. So, enjoy life! It will help you recharge your system.” To ensure a balance in his life, in the past 15 years, Dr. Vincent has been running an indoor soccer group at CAMH. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the league was meeting weekly. “We had terrific players, some of whom had played soccer professionally or semi-professionally, so it was fantastic being able to play with such a skilled group of people.” Dr. Vincent hopes to restart the league once COVID-19 hospital measures are permanently lifted.

When asked how he encourages and motivates his students to do their best in graduate school, Dr. Vincent replied: “I listen to my students, first, when they join my lab, but also as their graduate studies progress. I try to find out what they hope to achieve through their graduate training and which career path they wish to follow, for instance, the academic route or industry. I then try to enhance their graduate experience by creating a path to ensure that they achieve their ultimate goal”.