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Dr. Janet Rossant, chief of research at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, is shown on March 18, 2015.MATTHEW SHERWOOD/The Globe and Mail

"If you want to study the decisions that an embryo has to make, it's nice to start with a simple system," says Janet Rossant, chief of research at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

For Dr. Rossant, "simple" means the colourful ribbon of dots splayed across her laptop screen, the cells of a mouse embryo captured at an early stage of development. At this point, the embryo looks more like a rainbow than a rodent, but what the image demonstrates is clear: From the outset, mammalian cells are busy trying to figure out what to become. It's a process that has fascinated Dr. Rossant since she was a graduate student at Cambridge and Oxford universities, and one she has returned to time and again as one of the world's top developmental and stem-cell biologists.

Now the 64-year-old is the latest winner of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award.

Named after businessman-philanthropist James Arthur Gairdner, the Gairdner Awards were established in 1959 and are Canada's top international medical research prizes. Most winners, including several who later became Nobel laureates, are based outside of Canada. The Gairdner Wightman Award, which this year goes to Dr. Rossant, is specifically meant to recognize career achievement and research leadership within Canada.  Dr. Rossant is the first woman to win it.

It's an impressive achievement, particularly for someone who began her scientific career in this country as an outsider: young, foreign and lacking any kind of academic position.

"I did what I tell my students and post-docs never to do – I came without a job," says Dr. Rossant, sitting in her office atop SickKids' gleaming new research tower.

The building, which opened in 2013, is a physical manifestation of Dr. Rossant's collaborative approach to doing science. Because it was built on a small lot, it had to be tall to house the hospital's many research teams. To keep scientists from being too compartmentalized on separate floors, she pushed for a design that includes spectacular, multilevel interaction spaces that draw people together and facilitate communication.

It's a long way from her first lab, housed in an old refrigerator factory at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. When the newly married Dr. Rossant arrived there to take up a one-year faculty position in 1977 (she had wed Canadian chemist Alex Bain, who she'd met at Cambridge), she found the lab stuffed with everyone else's discarded equipment. In the U.K., she had been studying developmental biology at a world-leading lab just as the field was making giant leaps forward, spurred by the discovery of stem cells – cells that can be coaxed to produce a variety of other cell types – and the revolution in genetics. In Canada, only a handful of people were working in her specialty.

In 1985 she left Brock to join a newly created research institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. It quickly became a leading biomedical powerhouse.

"It was a combination of good timing, good luck and good people," says Alan Bernstein, now president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, who originally recruited Dr. Rossant to the job.

The developmental biology chops that she brought to Mount Sinai proved invaluable as researchers there teamed up to make a series of important finds, Dr. Bernstein said.

Among the highlights was a joint effort to uncover the biology of blood vessel formation, a process that begins early in embryo development. The researchers hoped to learn to suppress it in cancer cells in order to starve tumours. Other investigations followed, leveraging what were then new techniques for manipulating genes in mice and using them to discover how different biochemical processes operate in humans.

"We were pushing the technology and were using it to understand important developmental pathways," Dr. Rossant says.

Stem cells had always been a crucial part of her work in development and in 1998 she discovered a new type of stem cell that operates in the placenta.

She also led the panel that would come to define the ethical use of human embryonic stem cells in Canada, a policy that put Canada ahead of much of the world. It was a sign of the executive and organizational skills that Dr. Rossant would later bring to SickKids and to her term as president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in 2013.

By then, Dr. Rossant had long since stopped being an outsider, and was instead a central player and a champion.

"She carries the Canadian stem cell banner internationally like no one else," says James Price, president of the Canadian Stem Cell Foundation.

Dr. Rossant helped to spearhead the foundation's new action plan for stem-cell research in Canada and has been actively lobbying funding agencies to keep Canada at the leading edge just as stem-cell-based therapies for a range of diseases and ailments are moving into clinical trials around the world. And, she says the $100,000 in prize money she will receive from the Gairdner Foundation will go toward helping young scientists further their research.

Back at SickKids, Dr. Rossant is still, first and foremost, the curious researcher who maintains her own lab and research team and speaks with equal enthusiasm about mouse embryos and architecture as she walks through the cathedral-like interaction space she helped to create.

"I've always liked to build collaborations, build teams … build buildings," she says.

In her search for a professional home in Canada, Dr. Rossant has become the builder of a research community.

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