B. Brett Finlay, Ph.D.
Dr. Finlay's research group has made important contributions to the molecular biology of bacterial pathogens, including Salmonella and E. coli, which cause typhoid and food poisoning, respectively, and H. pylori, which can cause stomach ulcers. He is an HHMI international research scholar and a professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Alberta, Dr. Finlay conducted postdoctoral research in medical microbiology at Stanford University. Dr. Finlay was awarded one of Canada's most prestigious science awards, the 1998 Steacie Prize, and has received several other prizes for his work.
Brett Finlay knew that he wanted to become a scientist almost from the moment that he first toddled after his parents, both biologists, as they investigated the natural world in their community outside Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta. "I had no choice," he laughingly recalls. "As kids, our life consisted of helping my dad track birds or going down to the slough, scooping out green, slimy stuff, and putting it under the microscope with my mom. Back then I really liked dinosaurs, so my parents would drag me out to the paleontology department at the University [of Alberta] so I could help the scientists scrub dinosaur bones with a toothbrush." His parents, whom he considers his first mentors, were constantly exposing him to a lot of science, and "I loved it," he says.
Not content with simply observing living things, Finlay decided to study biochemistry and molecular biology as an undergraduate at the University of Alberta. "I really like to know how things work," he explains. "I wanted to get down to the molecular level." His research interests led him to continue on at the university, where he pursued a Ph.D. in the mechanisms of bacterial conjugationthe ability of bacterial cells to transfer DNA between cells that are in physical contact.
After earning his Ph.D., Finlay moved south to Stanford University to train as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of world-renowned microbiologist Stan Falkow. It was here that he realized that people had been taking the wrong approach to studying pathogenic bacteria. "Everyone was looking at these pathogens isolated in test tubes," he explains. "I realized that no one is paying attention to what really happens when the bacteria hit the host cells. So I started to look at the process of infection. I wanted to figure out new ways we could explore it."
In 1989, when he finished his postdoctoral research at Stanford, Finlay was much in demand. He was leaning toward a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but his wife wanted to return to Canada. "I knew you could do good science in Canada," he says, "so we agreed to settle in Vancouver, a city we've both loved." His wife is a physician who also specializes in infectious diseases. "Our dinnertime conversations get pretty gross," he laughs.
Once in charge of his own lab, Finlay focused on the process of infection by investigating how bacteria invade the body, survive inside host cells, and proliferate. He concentrated his efforts primarily on Salmonella and E. coli bacteria because they are important pathogens. Salmonella can cause diseases ranging from gasteroenteritis to typhoid fever, and E. coli can cause severe diarrhea or even death, especially in infants and young children. From a researcher's perspective, however, the organisms are relatively safe to work with and can be easily manipulated using molecular biology techniques. Over the years, Finlay pursued a number of different strategies to learn more about the early stages of bacterial infectiongaining a good deal of knowledge about the ways in which Salmonella and E. coli cleverly avoid the host cell's efforts to kill them off.
A few years ago, Finlay's research team at the University of British Columbia discovered what Finlay has called a "completely new paradigm" for bacterial infection. While every previously identified pathogen adhered to an existing protein on host cells, the E. coli bacterium, Finlay learned, actually encodes its own receptor and injects that receptor molecule into the host cell's membrane. Building on that knowledge, Finlay is now focusing on testing a number of bacterial molecules discovered in his laboratory for use both as vaccines to prevent infections and as targets for new drugs to treat people once they've been infected. Some of the molecules are unique to a single species of bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella. But at least one family of proteins, called syringe, is made by several kinds of infectious bacteria. "What gets shot into the host cells may be totally different for different bacteria," explains Finlay, "but the actual syringe mechanism is the same. So it makes a good target."
Not all the research paths Finlay has pursued have led to expected answers, as wily bacteria continue to throw researchers unexpected curves. "There are always twists and turns in this field," he says. "Probably two or three times a year we get a result that's completely unexpected, where we just realize these bugs are so smart! They don't read the cell biology booksthey find their own way of doing things. That's what makes this field so exciting. You've got to learn to expect the unexpected, and to look for it."
Although unexpected results have sometimes meant throwing months of work out the window, Finlay, like all successful scientists, has learned to be philosophical and to keep an open mind about "failure." When experiments don't work, Finlay believes that a researcher needs to take a step back and ask, "Did the experiment really not work, or are the results trying to tell you something that you didn't think of before?" That's an important lesson to learn about sciencea failed experiment is often actually trying to tell you something.
Finlay's laboratory work has given him a healthy respect for the sophisticated ways in which bacteria behave, but visiting the hospital wards with his wifeand seeing children with life-threatening infectionshas given Finlay a sense of the societal as well as intellectual importance of his work. His reputation as a scientist and the numerous prizes he has won often bring him into contact with both local and national media. He has made a special effort during these interviews to "get the word out" that we must stop overusing antibiotics, which contributes to the problem of drug-resistant infections. He also wants people to understand that millions of children in developing countries are needlessly dying from infections that could be prevented with clean water and better sanitation.
Traveling to numerous conferences around the world, Finlay has encountered many of the world's finest scientists. While the scientists he's met have a wide range of personalities, they share one trait: impatience. "I think scientists are some of the most impatient people around," he says. "The main thing is, you just have to have a burning thirst for knowledge, an internal curiositywanting to know, how does that work?"
But a scientist also has to be able to handle frustration. "That's the worst part of science. When you're in school, you read all these scientific articles, and it looks so easy on paper. And you think, 'Oh, you just do this, and publish it.' What you don't see is all the pain and anguish that goes into each articleall the endless days and nights in the lab, trying to get the thing to work. Everyone goes through this."
Those occasional frustrations have not diminished Finlay's love of science or his enjoyment of the scientist's life. "It's a great life. It's an awesome life!" he says. "You get to play all the time. You get to find things that no one else has ever seen before. You don't know what's going to happen each day. I mean, what a concept, to live in a world where you don't know what you're going to find that day. You continually get to learn. After you've been out in the real world for a while, you realize that's really hard to come by, and it's such a joy. Life would be so boring otherwise. And teaching is really rewarding, when you get to turn someone on to what interests you, or when one of your students gives you an idea out of the blue. And, you're basically working for yourself. You're not going to get rich, but you have the freedom to follow your own ideasand you get paid for doing it!"
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.