Congratulations Dr. Dustin King (LDSS Graduate)
CIHR Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Simon Fraser University
Dr. Dustin King grew up in Burns Lake and attended DLES and LDSS. He went on to complete a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UNBC as one of the top students in his program. During his undergraduate he received prestigious awards from NSERC and the BC cancer agency to conduct cancer research in the lab of RNA biochemist Dr. Chow Lee. During this time he authored three publications and attended numerous academic conferences. Dustin went on to do a CIHR funded PhD in antibiotic research in the lab of world-renowned structural biologist Prof. Natalie Strynadka at UBC. Here he authored numerous publications in high impact journals (eg. JACS and Nature) and has received many awards and honors for his research. He was selected as one of only 10 Canadian students to attend the 65th annual meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau Germany. Recently, Dustin was awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Gold Medal (issued by the governor general of Canada to the top graduating doctoral candidate at UBC). Currently, he has been awarded a CIHR postdoctoral fellowship to study the molecular underpinnings of the devastating degenerative neurological disorder Parkinson’s disease with renowned chemical biologist Prof. David Vocadlo at SFU. He aspires to become a professor at a top Canadian university and direct his own independent research group.
Tell me about your Doctoral research.
My PhD research involved what we commonly hear about in the media as “superbug
bacteria”, or bacteria that are resistant to our current top antibiotics. What makes these bacteria superbugs is that they have acquired a secret weapon so that antibiotics can’t kill them. For my work, this secret weapon happens to be a protein called NDM-1. Essentially, this protein serves as a tiny little wrecking machine to single handedly destroy over 50% of antibiotics. During my PhD, I constructed atomic resolution pictures of NDM-1 using a technique called X-ray crystallography to uncover how this protein operates, and used that knowledge to develop molecules that specifically interfere with its function.
Tell me about growing up in Burns Lake.
I have very fond memories of growing up in Burns Lake. Growing up in a small northern community provides a freedom to roam and explore that you just don’t get in large cities. As a kid, I remember on several occasions coming home covered head to toe in mud because I had fallen in the pond while “frog hunting” with the neighborhood kids. Growing up in this environment really promoted a passion for the outdoors that persists to this day – although nowadays I tend to prefer golfing or sea kayaking to frog hunting.
What is your fondest memory during your time at LDSS?
I have many fond memories but if I had to pick one, it would be the 2003 golf provincials in Balfour, B.C. Back in high school my good buddies (Mike Porter, Daryn Larson, Danny Dell, Thomas Reynolds) and I were absolutely obsessed with golf. I remember the five of us competing as a team in the high-school zone finals in Quesnel, and the absolute shock of finding out that we had somehow managed to qualify for provincials. Despite the fact that we golfed horrendously in Balfour, I had an amazing time with coach “Mr. Skinner” and the “Dream Team” as we aptly called ourselves.
Did you always know that you would end up pursuing a scientific career?
No, definitely not! During high school my favorite classes were in the sciences; however, I was never a top student and was certainly not career driven at that stage. During my first year at UNBC I enrolled in “General Studies” and took a wide variety of courses in various disciplines and came to the realization that biology and chemistry were my passions. A major turning point came at the start of second year (Sept. 2007) when I attended a guest lecture given by Dr. Chow Lee. He delivered a fascinating seminar on cutting edge cancer research from his group. This talk inspired me to approach Chow about the possibility of working in his lab. He took me under his wing and I instantly became fascinated with biochemical research, and the possibility of making major scientific contributions for the betterment of humanity. It is at that stage that I finally decided that I would pursue a career as a scientist.
What is it in specific that draws you to biochemical research?
It always comes back to the fact that I am a reductionist type thinker. For me, it all starts with these real world big picture problems that affect human health, such as superbug bacteria. To me when I encounter one of these problems, my reductionist thinking causes me to want to probe deeper and deeper into what the underlying cause of that disease might be. Time and time again this leads me back to looking at the scale of individual atoms and molecules that underlie the disease process. I find it fascinating that in many instances, these major human disorders can be broken down and understood on this simple atomic scale enabling us to intervene for therapeutic benefit.
How has your schooling in District91 impacted your career?
Enormously! I look back on my time at DLES and LDSS with fond memories and can’t stress enough the profound role that these experiences played in promoting and facilitating both my career, and day-to-day life. In grade school I remember sometimes asking myself “when are we ever going to use this?” or “will I ever need to know that?” Ironically, as my career becomes more specialized I recurrently come across situations where these seemingly distant classes become directly applicable. For example, I was recently at a conference in Paris, and thanks to Grade 10 French I was able to somehow fumble through enough words to direct a cab driver and order food. Perhaps most importantly, this early education teaches people how to approach real world problems, and develop personalized learning strategies that lay the foundation for post-secondary education. I now realize the importance of this education in fostering personalized student development, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had such excellent teachers and mentors along the way.
How do you manage to keep a work-life balance?
Achieving professional success, while maintaining a healthy work-life balance is an important skill that takes many years to develop. I believe the key is being able to focus 100% on a task while at work, but to completely switch it off while away from the job. This directed focus is attainable but only comes with practice and dedication, and is a skill that I am continuously striving to improve.
If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?
One lesson that I learned very early on is that growing up in a small northern community is not a disadvantage and to never be afraid to follow your interests whatever they may be. In today’s competitive job markets, the tendency is to rush into a career path prematurely and forget that in order to excel at any endeavor it is absolutely essential to find something that you enjoy. Your eventual niche may be in an area that you would never imagine at your current stage. Therefore, my advice would be to believe in your abilities, and focus on finding your true passion without compromise.
Also, as a First Nations student I benefited immensely from financial assistance provided by my band, the Ojibwe Thessalon First Nation in Sault Ste. Marie Ontario. I would urge all fellow First Nations students to strongly consider taking advantage of this amazing resource and attending University.
What is the one thing that LDSS must change?
The mascot – bring back the duck!