Lees-Miller, Dr. Susan

2013 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Following The Questions Leads Biochemistry Professor To Worldwide Recognition

Dr. Susan Lees-Miller has been guided through an outstanding career doing basic science research by an enthusiasm for science and the thrill of making new discoveries.

“There’s always something new to find out,” she says. “Cells are incredibly complicated biological machines. I love trying to understand how they work. You do an experiment that answers one questions and throws out another 10 to answer. That’s what drives me.”

By following the questions and answering them, the professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has become an internationally renowned biochemist and scientist.

Instrumental Research

Her basic research discoveries have been instrumental in advancing the biological basis of radiotherapy: a cancer treatment used by one half of all cancer patients and which treats cancer by causing DNA damage. Dr. Lees-Miller has been a pioneer in this area for more than 20 years and is one of the most respected and well known DNA repair experts in the world.

The intent of her research is to find out how radiation can damage cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy cells; and to understand how cells repair themselves after radiation treatment.

Although ionizing radiation has been used in medicine for over a century, it was not until 1995 that the proteins involved in the detection and repair of ionizing radiation-induced DNA were identified and characterized.

Since that time, there has been a virtual explosion in understanding the cellular response to DNA damage – and the first signs of application to new cancer therapies are beginning to emerge. Dr. Lees-Miller collaborates with medical and radiation oncologists at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre to translate her discoveries into potentially life-saving applications.

“Research often builds on previously published literature,” Dr. Lees-Miller explains. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you put the pieces in place to see the big picture. Each piece gives us a better understanding of the whole process.”

Global Impact

Dr. Lees-Miller herself has published over 100 papers to add to the body of knowledge. She regularly receives invitations to give presentations at national and international venues where she represents the high quality of science that is being done in Alberta and acts as an ambassador for the province and the country.

In her role as the Engineered Air Chair in Cancer Research Dr. Lees-Miller founded the Genomic Instability and Aging Research. She used it to built an interdisciplinary research community and worked to mentor and support the junior scientists and clinician scientists within that team

Dr. Lees-Miller teaches at the graduate and undergraduate level and has graduated seven PhD and five MSc candidates, trained eight post-doctoral fellows and co-supervised another four. In 2008 she was awarded the Faculty of Graduate Studies Award for Outstanding Achievements in Graduate Supervision.

“Training the next generation of scientists and investigators is very rewarding,” she says. “I love the interaction with young scientists.”

Inspired by the work of Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, Dr. Lees-Miller is following in the footsteps of her heroes, building on their work and passing the torch to a new generation.