by Barbara Black
Gregory Huyer will be awarded the Governor-General's Gold Medal at Fall Convocation tomorrow for being the outstanding graduate student of the past academic year.
Huyer defended his thesis, Specificity of SH2 Domains and Protein Tyrosine Phosphatases, in August 1997, and was given the top rank of "outstanding," graduating with his PhD in chemistry last fall.
His research, published in several top journals, has had a major impact on the phosphatase research program at the Merck Frosst Centre for Therapeutic Research in Montreal, and has laid the foundation for Merck's new screening methodologies that allow the mass of a molecule to be measured accurately.
Over his three years at Concordia,Huyer held the Stanley G. French Graduate Fellowship, a MRC/PMAC Studentship, and an NSERC Fellowship. He currently holds an NSERC postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University, and was recently awarded a prestigious EMBO Fellowship. Unfortunately, he won't be able to attend convocation in person.
This isn't Huyer's first gold medal. He got his BSc with an honours in biochemistry from the University of Alberta, and won the Lieutenant-Governor's gold medal for being top honours science graduate of 1990. He took his Master's degree in biology at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology). After some time off for travel, he returned to his native Montreal in 1994 to work at Merck Frosst in Kirkland, where he had also worked for two summers while an undergraduate at the U of A.
"My boss, Mike Gresser, has an adjunct appointment at Concordia in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and he proposed that I pursue my PhD with him at Merck through Concordia," Huyer explained by e-mail from Cambridge last week.
Huyer is now working in a three-year post-doctoral position at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England. The Babraham Institute is a government research agency (specifically, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, or BBSRC), affiliated with Cambridge University.
"Our laboratory is part of the Cellular Immunology program, and we study T cell signalling, how T cells in the immune system change through the development of the organism and how they respond to foreign antigens," Huyer wrote. "It's a good mix of biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, and even some animal work with transgenic mice.
"I'm specifically studying the role of a particular enzyme called SHP-2 in T cell signalling. SHP-2 is a protein tyrosine phosphatase (PTP), an enzyme that removes phosphate molecules attached to the amino acid tyrosine in other proteins. Tyrosine phosphorylation is very important in transmitting messages within cells from signals outside of a cell.
"PTPs are very important enzymes. More than 50 mammalian PTPs are known, and they play essential roles in regulating cellular responses to many different external signals, including growth factors, immune responses, and metabolic changes. Many disease states, such as cancer, are associated with defects in signalling pathways, and as such, research in these areas can have important biomedical implications.
"The work builds nicely on my doctoral work, which was more of a biochemical study of PTPs and SH2 domains, another class of proteins involved in these signalling pathways."
Huyer enjoys life in England, but he has happy memories of university life here. "Probably what I appreciated most about my time at Concordia is the flexibility of the program. I really had the best of both worlds -- the academic experience as well as exposure to industry and the great resources at Merck.
"The Concordia Chemistry and Biochemistry Department was a very supportive and friendly place, in spite of my relative isolation due to spending almost all my time at Merck. My interactions with [Professor] Ann English and her lab were particularly fruitful and stimulating, and Ann's unwavering enthusiasm always kept me excited about my work. I learned a great deal about being an independent researcher during that time, and gained the confidence to tackle new areas of research.
"It was a really positive experience, and I especially thank Ann English, Mike Gresser, and Chidambaram Ramachandran, at Merck, for that."