Growing up, Christopher Gregg would never have described himself as a science geek or lab rat. A far more right-brained pursuit - being an artist - was much closer to the mark.
But a switch to science when he entered the University of Lethbridge has paid off for the Calgary-born Mr. Gregg, who has won a prestigious international award for his research.
Mr. Gregg, 35, has been awarded the Eppendorf/Science Prize for Neurobiology for his work on how inherited maternal and paternal genes affect the brains of children.
"I was extremely surprised and delighted to win the award," Mr. Gregg said from Cambridge, Mass., where he is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard. "There were some really outstanding people that are the finalists and the people who have won the award in the past are really outstanding scientists."
Mr. Gregg's choice to pursue science as a career is not so surprising, given his own family background: his brother is a surgeon, an uncle is a pediatric anesthesiologist and his mother was managing director for the Canadian Congress of Neurological Sciences before retiring. But it was his father, a computer programmer with a keen interest in science, who he believes encouraged him to take up the subject in Lethbridge, where he graduated with a degree in biochemistry.
An opportunity to earn his PhD at the University of Calgary under the guidance of an award-winning stem cell researcher sealed the deal.
"I had a great mentor - Sam Weiss - right at the start of my career and that makes such a big difference," said Mr. Gregg. "His mentorship was a real driving force behind my choice to pursue science as a career and he continues to be an inspired leader in Canadian science."
In 2006, he moved to Harvard as a post-doc in the lab of molecular neuroscientist Catherine Dulac, where he altered his research focus to utilize a then-emerging technology called next-generation genetic sequencing.
"I can't think of anyone more deserving," Ms. Dulac said of Mr. Gregg winning the award. "He's an extremely talented scientist and he's done a piece of work that's absolutely remarkable. So I'm absolutely delighted for him."
His research, as detailed in a 1,000-word essay submitted to the competition for young scientists, earned him the $25,000 grand prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Germany-based life sciences company Eppendorf. The essay appears in this week's issue of the journal Science, published by the AAAS.
"The general premise is trying to understand how the information we inherit from parents influences brain function and behaviour," he explained. "There are other things at a basic biological level where parents can influence the expression of genes in your brain, and the expression of those genes changes depending on whether you inherited them from your mother or your father."
Mr. Gregg, himself a married father of two young children, said these parental genes - along with environmental factors - could determine whether a person has an underlying susceptibility to neurological disorders and diseases.
So far, his research suggests that mothers have dominant control over gene expression during brain development in the fetus, while fathers have more control over gene expression in the adult brain.
Currently, his work is focused on understanding whether maternal and paternal gene expression in the brains of offspring is altered according to stresses and environmental effects experienced by parents. These insights could lead to a new understanding of how to improve the lifelong health of children, with potential relevance to neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis as well as cancer, diabetes, obesity, eating disorders, depression and addiction.
In mid-2011, Mr. Gregg will be moving his research from Harvard to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where as an assistant professor he will have his own laboratory.
Ms. Dulac, who is also a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said being awarded the international prize is a significant boost for a scientist about to set up a lab, and it should help Mr. Gregg attract talented researchers to his team.
"It really is rewarding for me to know that he's going to have his own group and be a successful scientist on his own."