For such a highly regarded scientist, and one so widely recognized for his team’s many breakthroughs in brain research, Dr. Rob Sutherland’s secret to success might surprise many.

Sutherland, a University of Lethbridge professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience, says an essential trait for all successful scientists is developing a thick skin. And that, he says, comes through repeated failure.

“We're nearly always wrong. Most experiments don't work. Most ideas that we have are bad ideas. Being able to say, ‘hey, that that didn't work,’ and then continue on to find another way to solve the problem, I think, is actually the key,” says the director of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). “That’s a personality trait that most of my colleagues have, and that my mentors had. They’re not willing to just fail and give up.”

Being adept at failure wouldn’t likely have allayed early concerns Sutherland’s family had of his career choice. Although science had piqued his interest from an early age, he says there was pressure on him to not become a scientist. As he was the first in his extended family to attend university, Sutherland says they had no previous knowledge of what a scientist was, nor an academic. Instead, he was encouraged to pursue an education that would lead to a job, like engineering or a medical degree.

By the time Sutherland took his first science course at the University of Toronto, however, it was a “done deal” in his mind. As for his family?

“I think they were ambivalent about it right up until I had a PhD,” he says, with a chuckle.

Inspiring mentorship, and his high school’s focus on science figured highly in Sutherland’s career choice. There he was provided opportunities to spend time in a research lab and hospital, attend weekend lectures on molecular biology and take a calculus course from a university faculty member, all of which helped him visualize what it would be like to be a scientist.

Not surprisingly, when the ULethbridge neuroscience program was beginning to blossom in the early ‘80s there was a concerted effort by Sutherland and colleagues Dr. Bryan Kolb and Dr. Ian Whishaw to focus on research and bring students into the laboratory.

“Classroom teaching is valuable up to a certain point, but if you're going to become a good scientist at some point you have to start behaving like one. And that involves posing questions that are actually answerable and learning the methods that will allow you to answer questions. You can't do that in a classroom,” says Sutherland.

Life sciences held a greater interest for him than physical sciences. Sutherland felt there were greater opportunities to make an impact in the former, and his focus at university and then graduate school turned to brain research.

“I was always impressed that you could use the scientific method to understand human intelligence,” he says. “I really thought learning and memory were a key to unlocking quite an important bit of what the brain does and what life sciences has actually generated.”

Sutherland arrived at ULethbridge in 1979 for postdoctoral training. He had applied for a number of scholarships and was offered two positions. The other was from Harvard.

“Everyone told me I was crazy. ‘Don't go to Lethbridge. I mean, you'll just die in the prairie cold,’ ’’ Sutherland recalls of the reaction to his destination decision.

His role at Harvard, however, would have been studying circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycle that synchronizes a number of the body's activities, including the brain. Meanwhile in Lethbridge, Kolb and Whishaw were creating a new field of science, neuropsychology. Sutherland was captivated by the prospect of getting in on the ground level of their research and what could be accomplished working alongside them.

“I think that one characteristic that seems to discriminate between people who end up accomplishing more than they ever imagined – which is definitely the case with me – is having good collaborators that work with you. You're not just one isolated brain trying to figure everything out, you're working with a team who correct you and create new ideas,” he says.

Sutherland’s research into the processes of long-term memory would lead him to focus on Alzheimer’s disease. Not only is it the most common defect in forming long-term memory, but he had also seen firsthand the impact Alzheimer’s disease had on his mother.

“I got to watch the devastating effects of that on a person over a period of 20 years. She had a particularly slow developing case, and that provided a lot of motivation to realize that the majority of families in Canada are going to go through that experience,” he says.

The team’s research has led to several breakthroughs which might some day help discover a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Sutherland has also earned numerous accolades over the years, among them being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and later receiving the Donald O. Hebb Distinguished Contribution Award by the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science.

Yet he is most proud of the impact his team’s mentorship has had on ULethbridge students. The CCBN became home to the University’s first successful PhD program and many of their past students have gone on to start their own companies or work for universities, research institutions, hospitals and major corporations.

“Part of what we are charged to do as scientists is to create that next generation of scientists who will carry on the work that still needs to be done,” says Sutherland. “So the neuroscience torch has been passed. Successfully.”

Sutherland’s PUBlic Professor Series talk, titled Why is the Brain Important?, took place on Thursday, March 28 at 7 p.m. in the Sandman Signature Lethbridge Lodge.

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