Trainee at GlycoNet: Sean Liston

Posted: January 13, 2020

Where do you work, what is your position and who is your advisor?

I work in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. I am a Postdoc in Dr. Leah Cowen’s Laboratory.

Tell me about the project you’re working on.

With GlycoNet, I am working on a translational project to develop a new broad-spectrum antifungal drug that kills pathogenic fungi, including species of Candida, Cryptococcus, and Aspergillus. Our compound, gepinacin, targets fungal glycosylphosphatidylinositol anchor biosynthesis, inhibiting growth and altering the fungal cell surface to expose immunostimulatory glycans. This project aims to improve pharmacokinetics of our scaffold by exploring SAR of gepinacin analogs, and to demonstrate efficacy in an animal model of candidiasis. Alongside this work, I’m studying into the roles of fungal GPI-anchored proteins in host-pathogen interactions. 

Other than glycomics, what areas of research do you think is important in advancing healthcare?

I’ll be very microbiology-biased here, but I think that antibiotic drug discovery is a really exciting and important area. This problem is increasingly being left to the academic community, and there are some really exciting discoveries coming out of Canadian universities.

Tell me an “Eureka!” moment in the lab.

My biggest “Eureka!” moment in the lab ended up driving 90% of my PhD research. I was looking for homologs to my protein of interest, and I noticed that some soil bacteria had an “extra” gene at the 3′ end of their capsule biosynthesis loci. I really only noticed this because the gene encoded an “ambrosia allergen” protein family member, which sounded exotic. That protein ended up being a  capsular polysaccharide depolymerizing enzyme, which we purified, crystallized, and used to ask interesting questions about bacterial capsule assembly. 

Use one word to describe a main take-away from the Canadian Glycomics Symposium. 

Linkage (analysis). That’s to say that the Canadian Glycomics Symposium is a great networking opportunity within the field 😉

What do you do when you are not in the lab?

When I’m not in the lab, I’m either walking my dog around High Park, finding a new restaurant to try, or obsessing over care for an alarmingly growing orchid collection.

How do you fight procrastination and stress?

I wish that I had a good answer for this question by now; I’ve always struggled with both of these things. For procrastination, I’ve been working on keeping a better calendar online in OneNote, so I can keep ‘To-Dos’ updated wherever I am. For stress I always make sure to take some time at the end of the day for myself, to walk the dog, read a chapter of a book, or do some yoga. Though I’d be hypocritical to say I’m always successful!

If you had to choose a completely different career path, what would it be?

Well right now my apartment looks more like a jungle than anything else, so I’d probably have some business growing and selling unusual tropical plants. However, my family has always said that baking should be my back-up plan.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’d absolutely love to still be in science and running my own academic lab.

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