George Graham

Tip of the Hat to a Jamaican Who Makes the Rest of Us Proud

Thanks to the folks at “Jamaican Diaspora” for alerting me to a story about one more Jamaican who is winning kudos in the wide world. And this time it’s not in track-and-field or bobsledding or some other form of physical achievement. It’s in the laboratory.

PatriceA story by Keisha Shakespeare-Blackmore in the Daily Gleaner’s Flair magazine tells about Jamaican-born Dr. Patrice Smith, who has achieved a breakthrough in treating nerve damage. Dr. Smith, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada, played a lead role in research that will pave the way for new therapies to reverse brain and spinal cord injuries.

She was featured not only in Flair but also in such publications as the scientific journal, Neuron, and the Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Globe & Mail newspapers (Globe & Mail photo above).

The Globe & Mail article explains:

Until about the age of two, the neurons in the human brain are still growing, stretching out long arms known as axons to form connections and build networks and circuits. After that, experience and learning shape those connections largely through pruning, said Dr. Smith, now 32 and running her own lab at Carleton University. Superfluous connections are trimmed; those used more frequently are strengthened in a variety of ways that don’t involve the growth of axons.

This suggests that a mechanism must kick in during the toddler years to prevent neurons from growing and forming new connections, said Dr. Smith, who moved back to Canada in 2008 after doing post-doctoral work at Harvard University. “There are signals from the brain saying, ‘Okay, the connections are formed, there is no need for you to grow.’ ”

Dr. Smith suspects this could be what prevents injured neurons in the brains and spinal cords of adults from repairing themselves.

Now, she and colleagues at Harvard have a found a molecule that appears to put the brakes on neuron growth in adult mice.

It is called SOCS3. When the scientists blocked it in adult mice with crushed optic nerves, the damaged neurons began to sprout.

The Gleaner story provides a glimpse into Dr. Smith’s life. Here’s an excerpt:

She said she has always been interested in how things work. As a child she was very good at taking apart small appliances and seeing whether she could put them back together.

Her interest in how the brain works began when she migrated to Canada, and took up a summer research job in a neuroscience lab at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Smith grew up with her grandparents because her mother, Elaine, was just 18 years old when she was born and had to move to Kingston to find work. Her mother later got married and migrated to Canada. Dr. Smith joined her after completing her studies at Manning’s High School in 1995 at the age of 18.

Her CXC results were not recognized in Canada , so she had to repeat her final year in a Canadian high school. She excelled and obtained a scholarship to attend the University of Ottawa. She received the highest average in her graduating year and was awarded a medal by the Ottawa-Carleton education school board. “I felt that my Jamaican education provided a strong framework for this,” she told Flair.

After completing her doctorate in 2005, she received a scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to attend Harvard University, which was where she began her current research. The research took about two years to complete. “I am currently working on extending this research in my own lab back in Canada to look at ways of functionally repairing damaged nerves, following spinal cord and brain injury.”

Dr. Smith is currently making waves in the scientific world in Canada , but it is hard work that has put her where she is today. She explained that when she first moved to Canada , it was difficult to adapt to the weather, especially the snow. But she notes that she was fortunate to have met and interacted with some wonderful people throughout her career, who have helped her along the way.

Her field is a male-dominated one, but she has persons around her who are generally “accepting” of a female scientist, although she says she has become used to being the only black female (sometimes the only black person) in her circle. “And I am still not used to being called ‘Dr Smith’.”

Congratulations, Dr. Smith! You are one more reason for my pride in being a Jamaican.

About the author

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com