Marla B. Sokolowski honoured for co-leadership of CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program

University Professor Marla B. Sokolowski has been recognized as a Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR. The designation is the institute’s highest honour, with only eight fellows having received it in its 40-year history.

The title recognizes distinguished individuals who have made sustained research contributions and have displayed long-term leadership and commitment. Sokolowski, a member of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, shares the honour with American pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce. Both researchers played pivotal roles as joint co-directors of CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development program from 2008 to 2019.

In the 11 years they led the program, Sokolowski and Boyce fostered the research and careers of many fellows, scholars and trainees; published two program-based special issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); oversaw two five-year funding renewals; organized three three-day program meetings per year; and coordinated two international conferences.

Sokolowski’s research focuses on how genes interact with the environment, thus impacting behaviour. A major career highlight was her discovery of the foraging gene in Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly. A similar gene exists in humans; since its discovery in 1980, it has been linked to such complex behaviours as courtship, sleep, learning, aggression and eating.

Of the designation’s significance, Sokolowski says: “CIFAR supported our program’s most creative, unbounded pursuits of the most fundamental questions in child and brain development. This had a transformative effect on my research program, deepening and broadening my perspective on gene-environment interplay, development and individual differences in behaviour. I am deeply honoured to be named a Distinguished Fellow by CIFAR.”

Sokolowski has more than 200 publications, is an award-winning teacher and mentor, and has given close to 250 invited lectures. Previously, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She has also received the Flavelle Medal from the RSC, the Distinguished Investigator Award from the International Behavioural and Neural Genetics Society, and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. This year, she was recognized with the 2022 JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award by U of T’s School of Graduate Studies

“Marla Sokolowski is a true pioneer in the field of behavioural genetics,” says Faculty of Arts & Science Dean Melanie Woodin. “Her transformative research has yielded groundbreaking insights into how the human brain develops. As a co-leader of one of CIFAR’s most important programs, she has facilitated a wealth of research illuminating the complex relationship between genes and experience.”

By Cynthia Macdonald – A&S News

Read more about how the Sokolowski Lab studies the interaction between genetics and behaviour in Drosophila melanogasterUniversity of Toronto biologists discover an epigenetic key to unlock behaviour change in fruit flies.