Genetic Marker: Robert Gerlai

Professor Robert Gerlai
Monday, May 20, 2013 - 7:10am
Carla DeMarco

Professor Robert Gerlai from the Department of Psychology at the U of T Mississauga was elated and surprised when he recently found out he was the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Investigator Award, one of the most prestigious honours bestowed by the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society (IBANGS).

“At first I couldn’t believe they selected me for this award because prior awardees are the giants of our field, scientists who practically created behavioural genetics,” says Gerlai. “It is truly an honour and a humbling experience for me to be listed among such wonderful investigators.”

The focus of behaviour genetics is to explore how genes impact behaviour and brain function. Gerlai uses zebra fish as his primary subject for genetic studies, which involve cognitive systems such as learning and memory, and also social conduct and alcohol-related behaviours. He says the similar genetic structure between zebra fish and humans will provide insight into the biological mechanisms for both organisms. Having worked in this field now for over 25 years, Gerlai has held appointments at several institutions including Indiana University, Purdue University, University of Hawaii and Eli Lilly and Company prior to joining the Psychology faculty at U of T Mississauga in 2004.

The Distinguished Investigator Award honours researchers working in behavioural and neural genetics in a faculty appointment for at least seven years, and recognizes the recipient’s impact in the field, record of research achievement, mentorship and relevant scientific discoveries.

As part of the honour, Gerlai will deliver the Distinguished Scientist Lecture at the 15th annual congress of IBANGS titled 'Genes, Brain & Behavior,' to be held in Leuven, Belgium, from May 20-24, 2013. His talk entitled, “From quantitative genetics through recombinant DNA technologies to phenotypical screening: Adventures in behaviour genetics,” will be an overview of Gerlai’s work over the span of his research career, and will cover such topics as using simple vertebrates to study complex neurobiological questions and recombinant DNA techniques to discover novel genetic function.

Gerlai is quick to share his success with the many talented and enthusiastic students and assistants who have worked alongside him in the lab over the years, and credits the supportive environment on the Mississauga campus for providing an exemplary research and teaching environment. He also sees this award not as an ultimate accomplishment, but as encouragement to continue his work in the field.

“The award recognizes my research and training, but seems to imply that I have reached some sort of final goal. However even now I think my scientific career is just starting,” says Gerlai. “Behaviour genetics is really a young field and there are so many questions we will have to answer and so many new, different approaches and methods we will have to develop. I think this award could strengthen the view of UTM as an important center for neurobehavioural-genetic research, and I hope it will also inspire many more students to join us and work with our dedicated faculty and staff.”