Professor Hélène Perreault, recognized for outstanding work in mass spectrometry
Meet Dr. Hélène Perreault, recognized as a leader among her peers in the field of mass spectrometry. Her main field of interest is to study glycosylated proteins, which are proteins that have naturally attached sugars. These sugars can change the function of a protein completely, and their presence or lack thereof can indicate or even cause a disease.
Although UofM Chemistry Professor Hélène Perreault is too young to have known Dr. Fred Lossing, it seems fitting that she is the winner of the 2017 Fred P. Lossing Award, given by the Canadian Society for Mass Spectrometry (CSMS). Not only is Perreault known for her outstanding work in mass spectrometry (as was Lossing), she is a kind person with a ready sense of humour. This jibes with Lossing’s reputation as an irreverent and well-liked individual who always made time to relate to others personally as well as professionally.
Perreault was thrilled to hear of her win, even more so because it is an award that comes from her colleagues. The timing of the announcement was also fortuitous.
“It’s great to receive the Lossing Award because my colleagues in Canada recognize that what I do is important. It came at the right time, because I had quite a big cut from NSERC this year, and I felt a little discouraged. Then I got this pat on the back from CSMS, and I was really happy.”
Perreault is well aware of what a little encouragement can do. Growing up in Quebec, she went through CEGEP, where she met a chemistry teacher by the name of Diane Rivest. Rivest had just graduated from Université de Montréal and taught elementary chemistry. Perreault was inspired by the young woman’s stories of her university experience, doing grad studies in a research lab. In addition, Rivest kindly offered to lend Perreault books to help her in her studies. As such, Perreault started her first year of university armed with Rivest’s books and advice for inspiration.
Lucky thing, too, since at that point Perreault really didn’t know about any professions other than mainstream ones such as pure sciences or health sciences. The onus was on Perreault to research other career options, and like a lot of teenagers, she wasn’t particularly proactive.
“I didn’t know there was anything such as physiotherapy or all those different specialized professions … There was nobody coming to talk to us about what career possibilities there were. All my friends were going to health sciences or pure sciences or engineering and to me there was nothing else that existed. So I just followed the main stream, and then met a person who convinced me about chemistry, and that’s how it happened.”
“It” was Perrault’s choice to study mass spectrometry, first in the fundamental aspects of ion physics at Université de Montréal, then at Dalhousie University as an environmental chemist, and finally at M.I.T. studying glycolipids, which led her to a career performing mass spectrometry on biological molecules. Her main field of interest is to study glycosylated proteins, which are proteins that have naturally attached sugars. These sugars can change the function of a protein completely, and their presence or lack thereof can indicate or even cause a disease. Antibodies are such types of molecules, and Perreault collaborates with medical professionals in both France and Canada who provide antibody samples for analysis in an effort to diagnose a specific disease or health problem. Perreault’s work helps to confirm or deny their collaborators’ hypotheses. One example of interesting collaborative project is to determine the structures of antibodies from animals that have been genetically modified for xenotransplantation purposes.
Perreault has a long history of collaborating with other researchers. Back in 2003, when Toronto was gripped by the SARS crisis, she got a call from Physics Professor Ken Standing. At the time, Standing was working with the National Microbiology Laboratory here in Winnipeg to find the key to the virus. He requested Perreault’s help in finishing his scientific paper.
“Ken said “Hey, Hélène, we really need your input to finish this paper’, because he had found all the proteins of the virus and there was still some bits and pieces missing. Actually, big bits and pieces, especially glycosylation, Perreault’s main focus.
“It was really a race, because we were against big American groups who were trying to do the same thing. I remember just working day and night on that stuff, for a couple of weeks. If the other team had gotten ahead of us, it would have been so disappointing. We were in the right position, so it was fantastic. Then at the conference I remember Ken Standing getting up to give a presentation on this work, which stunned everybody in the audience. I was just so proud and so excited to have participated in that study. That was a big moment.”
Perreault is quick to point out that in addition to those big moments, her career has afforded her the opportunity to play witness to many other equally significant ones. Her students, upon whom she looks as family, have had their personal triumphs, too. Perreault treats all of these moments as very special in their own right.
“Every time we have a paper accepted, it’s memorable. Every time a grad student gets good results and is happy about it and comes to see me all excited … those are moments I’ll never forget.”
No doubt Fred Lossing would be proud.
Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.