From skateboarder to neuroscience researcher
University of Calgary
Noxious bugs, indie-folk music, electrical brain currents and neurological disorders: Dustin Anderson’s eclectic brew of passions has led him on a fascinating path to life as a scientist and medical doctor.
“If there was something I wanted to learn I just buried myself in it,” says Anderson, who graduates from the University of Calgary’s Leaders in Medicine program with a PhD in neuroscience, a medical degree, and an armful of accolades and awards including the Governor General’s Gold Medal and a Killam Doctoral Scholarship.
Anderson, 32, graduated from Campbell River’s Carihi Secondary in 1999, but at the time had little idea of where he was heading.
“I was more focused on, well, being a skateboarder and hanging out with my friends, and just being a kid,” Anderson said during 2011 interview. “I was by no means an excellent student.”
He did have a knack for math and physic, and “squeaked into” engineering school. After getting a BA in applied science and electrical engineering, Anderson as an engineer for about a year-and-a-half, but decided he didn’t enjoy the work as much as the learning, so went back to school, and got his second BA and then a PhD.
Looking back, Anderson’s discovered his “lust for learning” during his first visit to Calgary for a tour of the university’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute.
He cites Dr. Ray Turner, Dr. Gerald Zamponi and Dr. Paul Beck among his mentors.
“They really sold me on the idea that I could be this different critter,” says Anderson, who wants to combine research and patient care. “If I could take things from my lab to my patients…is that realistic? No. Can I be part of that? Yes.”
Anderson’s research found two classes of ion channels that are essential for the cellular electrical function in the brain to work in concert, not independently as previously thought.
His work examined how the channels interact to produce novel signalling mechanisms in the central nervous system.
The finding could lead to advances in treatments for brain injuries and neurological disorders.
Turner, a professor with the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, says Anderson has the rare ability to see the big picture and long-term potential while developing and following through on short-term research specifics.
“He’s driven to follow his passions,” says Turner, noting that Anderson’s unique undergrad background in electrical engineering and bio-science gave him a fresh perspective. “And he finds a way to bring everyone around him to a new level.”
That passion is infectious. Anderson’s professors say he brings the same enthusiasm to the lab, to patient care and when he is in a classroom setting.
He once did a talk discussing weird bugs that create toxins to kill other animals and related it to the possibilities this may open up for patient treatment.
“He’s a guy who can come up with really creative ways to look at things,” says Beck, director of the Leaders in Medicine program. “He asks questions that the average person doesn’t ask. He thinks the way an average person doesn’t think.
“He works really hard. I expect he will be the one to come up with something groundbreaking.”
Even Anderson’s hobbies become high level.
Bugs, boards and a band
In high school, he focused on becoming a professional skateboarder. At 23, he picked up a guitar and learned to play as a stress outlet, a pastime that morphed into a second career as a musician/songwriter. Four albums later, his band Heart Failure Research Unit is filled with professors and doctors from the University of Calgary.
In July, Anderson begins a five-year residency program in neurology at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. There, he will work with people recovering from strokes and brain injuries, as well as those suffering with disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
He’s hoping patient care leads to the “aha” moment of “I want to fix THAT!” that will focus his research dreams.
While many would be thrilled to leave school after 14 years of post-secondary education, Anderson’s excitement for learning hasn’t waned.
“I’d recommend everyone do the same thing if you can,” he says. “You want to learn what you love. Find what turns your crank.”
Judy Monchuk is a writer for the the University of Calgary magazine UToday.