Profile with Melanie Dobson

Melanie Dobson (Nova Scotia & Somerville 1977) is a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dalhousie University. She was one of the first Canadian women to ever be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship. She has held research positions at Oxford, Nottingham University, and at York University. Her current research is focused on understanding inheritance of chromosomes and parasitic genetic elements.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Halifax?

Melanie Dobson: I do quite a bit of hiking and walking. I get into the woods at any chance I can. I live on the edge of the city and it’s quite rural.

Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you picture yourself doing later in life?

Melanie Dobson: For a long time I thought that I would be a medical doctor. I was also interested in being a naturalist or a scientist. Once I started doing research as an undergraduate I knew that was what I wanted to do .

Rhodes Project: How did you decide to become an academic?

Melanie Dobson: It’s one of things that you never consciously decide. Even when I went off to do my PhD I was never really sure what I would do afterwards, I took it a step at a time and made decisions based on what I wanted to do most, looking ahead at a one-to-two year time frame. An academic career is not very straightforward. It’s an unsatisfying career progression for a lot of the students we see right now as there are no guarantees, no laid out path.

Rhodes Project: In light of that, what advice would you give to your students if they are figuring those issues out?

Melanie Dobson: Don’t try to plan too far ahead in the future, it’s really difficult. Particularly, a lot of women talk themselves out of trying for things even though they really enjoy what they’re doing; they look ahead and think it’ll be too hard. Try it now, and then you can make another decision in two years time. Keep as many doors open as possible.

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about your time at Oxford?

Melanie Dobson: I had been to England before when I was 19. I was interested in tracing the roots of my family tree, so I came and did some research on that. So I always felt very at home in England; Oxford wasn’t too surprising, though there were certainly things that weren’t easy. They were very behind at the time on their views on women and women in science. I understand that it is changing now, but as a Canadian I wasn’t expecting such obvious pigeon-holing by other people. I chose a women’s college deliberately as I wanted that experience - but even they were doing it. There was a strong sense of a woman’s “place”. You had to fight for things. Those old, traditional views on things were surprising to me.

Rhodes Project: Is there a current debate in Biology that is particularly relevant for you?

Melanie Dobson: Everything!  One that is particularly heartening for me is the recent decision in the States; the Supreme Court has ruled that human genes can not be patented . A private company, Myriad Genetics, has held patents on the breast cancer genes BRCA 1 and BRCA2. A mutation in either of these puts gives you at a 50% chance of getting cancer in your life, and as the patent holder, the company held a virtual monopoly on genetic testing for predisposition to breast cancer. So the Ontario Government health system was being sued, because if anyone else offered the testing without using the company’s services, which cost $3000, it constituted patent infringement. Astonishingly, the judges at the top level in their decision were able to get the nuance of the difference between genes in nature that should not be subject to patents, and the cloned versions we have in a lab, the versions that companies need to have patent protection on. It’s a subtle thing that I teach in fourth-year university and so this was heartening for me to see: science being evaluated fairly by judiciaries. It’s really exciting.

But there is so much else going on as well - like the Human Genome Project, which I was involved in at an earlier stage. Standing in the darkroom in Oxford, I was the first person to see the sequence of the end of the human Y chromosome. Since I was eight months pregnant at the time, my male colleagues and I were very pleased I finished the sequencing before I was rushed off!

Rhodes Project: What is the most interesting lesson that you’ve learned from your students?

Melanie Dobson: Teaching is very humbling. My students in the lab have a can-do attitude. One guy recently came to me and said, “I think we could try this.” I told him that it would be difficult and take too much time but then he responded, “Well I already did it and here are the results.” You get used to looking at things in a fixed way and students come with fresh eyes and they see things that you don’t see. It thrills me to see that happen.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to one issue, global or local, what would it be?

Melanie Dobson: I have two absolute passions. We are in desperate straits for scientific research funding in Canada right now. It’s like being in the Thatcher government period again, which is why I left England. In science, you don’t know where the big discoveries are going to come, so you have to fund basic science curiosity-driven research. It’s more apt to yield the big discoveries of the future than industry-directed applied research. I am also on the executive of an environmental non-profit and we’re fighting at the moment to protect wilderness lakes just outside Halifax, trying to preserve a green belt before it is lost.

Rhodes Project: What inspires you?

Melanie Dobson: The people who inspire me right now are people who are getting old gracefully, that are full of energy and are passionate about things. It is tougher as you get older.

Rhodes Project:  What are you currently looking forward to?

Melanie Dobson: My summer holiday! I just got back from doing a wilderness hike with my siblings on the Appalachian Trail, lots of mountains, really tough hiking. I can hardly wait to go back and do another.

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