Understanding the brain is Dr. Patrice Smith’s mission
Finishing high school at the top of her class and already identified as academically gifted, Dr. Patrice Smith came to Canada in 1995 anticipating entering university to pursue science studies.
That expectation soon turned to disappointment when the Mannings High School graduate was informed she had to repeat her final year of high school because her stellar Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) results were not recognized.
“That was my introduction to Canada and it wasn’t pleasant,” recalled Smith, the product of an 18-year-old mother. “I was always good academically and to be told I had to return to high school was difficult.”
Determined to prove that she was ready for post-secondary education, Smith achieved the top average in her graduating year and was the recipient of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Medal presented to students who attain an overall average of 90 or higher and the Principal’s Medal awarded to the top graduating student in her school.
“To be honest, that year in high school was a breeze compared to what I had gone through in Jamaica’s educational system,” she said. “It was however interesting having to go back to high school after already graduating. I figured if I wanted to move forward, I had to take a step backward.”
Raised in a rural village in western Jamaica, Smith is one of Canada’s leading neuroscientists.
With elucidating molecular mechanisms mediating repair of the damaged central nervous system as her general research interest, she heads a Carleton University 10-member lab that includes graduate and undergraduate students and post-doctoral trainees.
“We are trying to figure out how the brain develops normally,” she said while in Toronto last weekend to receive her African-Canadian Achievement Award for excellence in the sciences. “If we can come up with how those neurons in the brain are developing, we will get a sense as to how they function normally. If we know that, then maybe when they get damaged, for instance in the case of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, we could have a sense of how to get them back to that earlier stage where they can help to repair themselves.
“There are very different components in the very young brain compared to the older brain. As we get older, we get little damages here and there and mini-strokes and these change the brain significantly as we age. Because of this, if you are going to be trying to get the brain back to an earlier developmental kind of capacity or early developmental ability to repair itself, then we need to understand initially what’s going on developmentally and then we can apply some of that knowledge to the adult brain to try to tackle things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s very exciting but we are just at the very tip of the iceberg.”
Stroke recovery is also of extreme interest to Smith who, with a pair of Harvard University researchers, released a paper nearly five years ago detailing a way to potentially encourage nerve repair in the brain.
“It seems Blacks are more vulnerable to strokes and this is what led me to my interest in this area,” said Smith who spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston pursuing her interest in the differences between young and old brains. “I saw the need for understanding how you can recover from a stroke and particularly how you can recover from some of those mini-strokes which actually make you more susceptible to some of the lethal types of strokes.
“If you have a small mini-stroke and you have several of them over time, what happens is that your brain becomes more susceptible to more severe forms of strokes. If we can understand how the brain is working to recover from some of these mini-strokes, maybe we can grasp how to recover from a more severe stroke when there are more debilitating symptomologies where you can’t use your hands or feet.”
Smith’s interest in how the brain works was inspired while engaged in a summer research project in a University of Ottawa neuroscience lab.
“I liked taking things apart and putting them back together,” she pointed out. “It was kind of natural for me to choose this path because when you think about the brain, it’s so complicated. If I could put that back together, that would be an exceptional accomplishment.”
One of Jamaica’s oldest secondary schools, Smith said Mannings played a powerful role in shaping her life.
“It was there that I became interested in science,” said the married mother of a baby girl. “I took all the science courses and I had teachers who were very encouraging. Once I left high school and came to Canada to join my mother and further my education, I felt it was natural for me to continue with the sciences.”
The recipient of numerous research awards, Smith said the African-Canadian Achievement Award will take pride of place in her home.
“I am so overwhelmed to be recognized in such a way by my community,” she said. “I am humbled and very appreciative.”