From helping to determine the genetic triggers for adverse drug reactions in children, to decoding the secrets of healthier trees, Dr. Alan E. Winter, President and CEO of Genome British Columbia, is involved in an array of intriguing science projects.
But communicating the importance of these projects, particularly to those unfamiliar with the fields of genomics and proteomics, can come with some challenges (genomics is the branch of genetics that studies entire DNA sequences of organisms. Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins).
“In my experience, communicating science effectively to the public is absolutely critical for any organization dealing with advanced technology and particularly in genomics. Genomics has significant potential to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges, including increased food production, cleaner sources of energy, population health, and adaption to climate change. But if the public does not trust the introduction of new technology, then that potential is not achieved,” says Dr. Winter.
Genome British Columbia is a non-profit research organization that invests in and manages large-scale genomics and proteomics research projects and enabling technologies focused on areas such as human health, forestry, fisheries, bio-energy, mining, agriculture and the environment. Its programs are funded by the Provincial Government of British Columbia, the Government of Canada through Genome Canada and Western Economic Diversification Canada, and other public and private partners.
Dr. Winter has headed Genome British Columbia since December 2001, when it was just a fledgling startup. Today, the organization is a catalyst in BC for life science research, with over $450 million invested in genomics research since 2001.
“I was attracted to molecular biology because the Human Genome Project seemed to me like the challenge of ‘going to the moon’. Secondly, finding genes or other patterns in our DNA code seemed like a digital signal processing problem in telecommunications with which I was quite familiar,” says Dr. Winter.
Dr. Winter has substantial experience in the space and telecommunications industry, including as President of the ComDev Space Group and as President and CEO of MPR Teltech in Vancouver. Prior to MPR, Dr. Winter worked for Telesat Canada and the federal Communications Research Centre in Ottawa. Dr. Winter is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and of the Canadian Astronautics and Space Institute.
While his career has been varied, he’s always been involved in the application of research and advanced technology to real world problems, with an overarching goal: “If my work has sparked others to also get excited about Canada’s competitiveness and opportunities in these sectors, then that’s my contribution,” says Dr. Winter.
“I’ve also learned that the public is often very interested and supportive if they can see the application of technology to their own lives and communities in human interest stories that link technology and life. So I’ve continued that principle of communication in each job since, particularly at Genome BC.”
Dr. Winter and his colleagues reach out to the public through the Genome British Columbia website, a quarterly newsletter, public forums called Bringing Genomics Home, and through an education program called Geneskool, for high school students throughout BC.
Dr. Winter received his PhD in Electrical Engineering, Solid State Physics, from Queen’s University, and is a recipient of the alumni Legacy of Achievement. In 2007, he was honoured with a Leadership Award from LifeSciences BC. He is currently serving on the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel on Science Performance and Research Funding.