Acknowledging a lifelong career with exceptional contributions to the field of neuroscience, the University of Lethbridge’s Dr. Robert Sutherland, Board of Governors Research Chair, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Director of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN), has been elected to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) in Academy III (the Academy of Science).
“It’s absolutely thrilling and it’s really gratifying to know there are colleagues who have been working at the highest level in Canada who recognize our contributions and voted to elect me into fellowship,” says Sutherland. “It’s a tremendous honour and I think it’s also an acknowledgement the University of Lethbridge is a mature research-intensive institution that can hold its own in many areas. It’s a great tribute to all the people who put in efforts to create a neuroscience program, and that includes undergraduate students.”
Sutherland was born and raised in Toronto and completed a BSc at the University of Toronto.
“I hadn’t committed to any particular major entering the University of Toronto, but as soon as I started learning about and reading about brain research, that was it,” he says. “I decided I was going to be a brain researcher and I just followed that trajectory after that decision in first-year university. It’s been a good career path and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
When he completed his bachelor’s in 1974, the best place in Canada to further study brain function was Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he completed his graduate work and met his now colleague, Dr. Bruce McNaughton. Back then, neuroscience was in its infancy.
“It was not recognized as a field back in the ‘70s and the word was just starting to be used to refer to a certain group of life scientists and people on the edge of psychology and brain research who had started calling themselves neuroscientists,” says Sutherland. “There were no departments of neuroscience anywhere in the world.”
Neuroscience began getting more attention following the formation of an international society and has since become a recognized field with many branches, including behavioural, clinical, cognitive and computational neuroscience. Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary science that uses tools from math, biology, psychology and physics to figure out how the brain works.
“If you take a look at the students we admit into our graduate program, they come from physics, math, biology, psychology and biochemistry,” says Sutherland. “They all come from different areas; that’s also true of faculty members. A number of them have math or electrical engineering or zoology degrees and so forth. It’s truly a mixed trans-disciplinary approach to figuring out how the brain works. It’s been very exciting to be with the area of neuroscience from its inception all the way to now. It’s been fantastic, a really good ride.”
After completing his PhD, Sutherland chose to come to the U of L for post-doctoral training, a move that surprised many in his circle. He had several choices, Harvard Medical School among them.
“Everyone thought I was absolutely crazy to go to the University of Lethbridge instead of Harvard,” he says. “But I’d met my two lifelong colleagues, Drs. Bryan Kolb and Ian Whishaw, at a meeting and talked with them about their work. What they were doing was exactly what I was after, trying to understand how the brain generates the most complex aspects of cognition, memory, action and so forth, with non-human animals. It turned out they were the perfect mentors to supervise that.”
Sutherland then started studying memory in earnest. After a couple of years, he taught a class in behavioural genetics that went over well and was hired as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology. He was eventually promoted to professor and then, with his wife Janice, moved to the University of New Mexico where he’d be able to work with students from undergraduate to PhD levels and post-doctoral training, and Janice would be able to complete a PhD.
“We tried pretty hard to get a graduate program at the University of Lethbridge all through the late 1980s,” says Sutherland. “We really were concerned, in order to keep up really good research productivity and make a lasting contribution in Canadian neuroscience, we had to have a PhD program and were turned down a couple of times. The province didn’t feel there was a need to have another graduate program in Alberta.”
It would take two more decades before a PhD program at the U of L would become a reality, with its first two graduates in 2004. The graduate program came to fruition when the CCBN was built in 2000 with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research (AHFMR), the U of L and a private company. The University of Lethbridge became home to the first Department of Neuroscience with bachelor’s, master’s and PhD programs in Canada.
“Part of the package was a PhD program and an Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research scientist had to be added to the mix and that was me,” he says. “My family and I were anxious to come back to Canada and the AHFMR program was super.”
During the 1980s, Sutherland’s main focus was on developing better ways to measure memory in non-human animals. He devised methods that are now used by drug companies and laboratories around the world. While at the University of New Mexico, he developed a theory of long-term memory that impacted the field and began focusing on understanding the role of the hippocampus in long-term memory. While scientists generally thought the hippocampus was only briefly involved in the storage of new memories, Sutherland’s work has shown the hippocampus continues to be engaged during memory recall.
By 2001, Sutherland was back on the U of L campus working as a senior AHFMR scientist and became Chair of the Department of Neuroscience, director of the CCBN and worked at provincial and national levels.
“I also morphed my research from purely normal aging to pathological aging and then to Alzheimer’s disease, bringing along the methods and theoretical perspectives that I’d acquired over the years,” he says. “Now, in my lab, I’d say half of the work we’re doing is directly related to understanding Alzheimer’s type dementia.”
In addition to his research into Alzheimer’s, Sutherland continues his work on understanding exactly what the hippocampus represents and its role in memory processes. Research has shown spatial relationships in an environment are key to representation in the hippocampus, but little is known about how temporal relationships are involved.
Given his lengthy career, retirement may seem imminent.
“The pandemic did provide lots of opportunity for pondering,” he says. “As long as I continue to enjoy it and feel it, I’m going to keep doing it.”
Sutherland’s election will be formally recognized at the Royal Society’s meeting at McGill University in November. Notably, he’ll become the fourth member of the Department of Neuroscience to receive the honour, along with Drs. Bruce McNaughton, Ian Whishaw and Bryan Kolb.