Professor Keith Pardee teaching

Professor Keith Pardee of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy is one of two faculty members honoured with a 2021 Early Career Supervision Award from the University of Toronto.

The award recognizes pre-tenure faculty who over a period of up to six years have demonstrated excellence in graduate supervision. 

“We’ve heard time and again from our graduate students that support and engagement from supervisors and mentors can change the whole course of a graduate career,” says Professor Charmaine C. Williams, Acting Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “We want to recognize and foster the innovative ideas and practices our early-career faculty members are bringing to their work.”

The School gives out two of the awards annually, one in the physical/life sciences, and one in the humanities/social sciences. Professor T.L. Cowan of the Faculty of Information is the other recipient this year. Pardee and Cowan will each receive a certificate of recognition from SGS and a travel grant for one of their students. 

“It’s important to me to do everything I can to support my students’ chosen career paths,” says Pardee, an assistant professor who holds a recently renewed Canada Research Chair in Synthetic Biology and Human Health.

Pardee joined the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy in 2016 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Since then, the U of T alumnus (he earned his PhD in Molecular Genetics in 2010) has been hard at work in his lab, where he and his trainees create low-cost, molecular diagnostic tools for the health care sector.

Some of these innovations are freeze-dried and cell-free, and more economical and accessible than conventional lab-based diagnostics. That makes them especially important in managing communicable diseases — such as Zika, chikungunya and now, COVID-19 — in low-resource and distributed settings. 

Though the lab is in its early days, Pardee has already created an international-facing and diverse team, with collaborations in seven countries. In 2018, Pardee and a team of graduate students led by Yuxiu Guo and Seray Cicek travelled to Ecuador, where they tested a $500 portable device that could be used to run patient samples for Zika virus in remote areas. 

Alongside successes in research and innovation, the lab has also yielded two graduate student-led start-ups: Guo and Cicek’s LSK Technologies, and Liberum Biotech, founded with former graduate student Aidan Tinafar, which focuses on commercialization of hardware and cell-free molecular technologies developed for automation of protein production.

Pardee says that part of his lab’s mission is to make sure that he prepares students not just for careers in academia, but also for careers in industry or in entrepreneurial ventures.

“I want to see my students thriving in the lab and after they graduate, in whatever path they are choosing,” says Pardee, who spends a few days every week meeting with students to work through challenges.

That means helping students acquire technical and critical thinking skills, but also teaching them to navigate the demands of commercializing research — like filing disclosures and working with patent lawyers and business development teams. 

“It’s very one-on-one approach,” says Pardee. “Everyone needs a slightly different kind of mentorship.” 

By: Gayatri Kumar

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