For molecular biologist John Archibald, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker in his early twenties was like flicking a switch.
“The world suddenly made a lot more sense to me,” says Dr. Archibald. “I became smitten with the idea that DNA could be used as a tracker of history — this led me to a career in molecular biology and genomics.”
The professor from the Faculty of Medicine is Dal’s newest Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence. He joins fellow researchers Randall Martin and Jean Marshall, who were the inaugural chairholders in 2016, and Mark Stradiotto, who became a chair in 2020.
The Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence was established as a way to honour Dr. McDonald, a Dalhousie alumnus and Nobel laureate, and to recognize and retain high-calibre professors at the university. Nominees for the chair are expected to have achieved international prominence in their field and demonstrated the impact of their research in that area. Chairholders are also expected to be successful in attracting top-quality students and postdoctoral fellows to their labs and train them to become future leaders.
“It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to celebrate the incredible work being done by Dr. Archibald,” says Alice Aiken, Dalhousie’s vice-president research and innovation. “It is clear that he is having a significant impact on his field and playing a key role in training the next generation of molecular biologists.”
As an awardee of the McDonald Chair program, Dr. Archibald will receive $50,000 a year for up to seven years to build upon his already substantial body of research.
“Being named an Arthur B. McDonald Chair of Research Excellence is both an honour and a privilege,” says Dr. Archibald. “Dr. McDonald’s spectacular career studying sub-atomic particles underscores the value of investing in discovery science. As a basic research scientist myself, the chair means a great deal to me.”
Learning more about the world and our place in it
Born in Quebec and raised in Nova Scotia, Dr. Archibald completed his Ph.D. in the laboratory of Dal’s own Ford Doolittle. He then carried out postdoctoral studies with Patrick Keeling at the University of British Columbia. He returned to Dal as a faculty member in 2003, and is director of Dalhousie’s Centre for Comparative Genomics & Evolutionary Bioinformatics.
Dr. Archibald’s lab uses the tools of genomics to study how microbes adapt and diversify. The team has a long-standing interest in a process called “endosymbiosis,” which occurs when one single-celled organism takes up residence inside another. This is surprisingly common in nature — sometimes the merger of the two organisms gives rise to an entirely new species.
His research team also studies lateral gene transfer, the exchange of genetic material across species bounds. They analyze the genomes of microorganisms to try and better understand how — and how often — they pass their genes around, and what the implications of this form of genetic exchange are.
In addition to his work at Dalhousie, Dr. Archibald is a Member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He is also a University Research Professor, and the author of two popular science books, both published by Oxford University Press.
Changing the way science is done
When Dr. Archibald became a faculty member in 2003, genomics was still very expensive and time-consuming and involved instruments the size of refrigerators. Today, researchers can sequence the genome of a bacterium or virus in a matter of hours on a device that fits in our pockets. According to Dr. Archibald, these dramatic technological advances have changed the way science is done.
“What hasn’t changed, though, is the need for people to make sense of the data,” says Dr. Archibald. “I get a lot of satisfaction from mentoring the young researchers in my lab, many of whom have gone on to become professors in the U.S., Europe and Japan. I enjoy building and leading teams of researchers to tackle complex scientific problems.”
This includes the Aquatic Symbiosis Genomics Project. This recently announced international project will help researchers answer important questions about the ecology and evolution of symbiosis — where two different species live in close association — in marine and freshwater ecosystems at a time when biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate.
“Simply put, I love the process of discovery,” says Dr. Archibald. “When we sequence the genome of a new species in the lab, we are the first human beings to ‘read’ the organism’s DNA. It’s still a thrill after all of these years.”
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