Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper wins Diabetes Canada Lifetime Achievement Award

Posted on Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper

“Recent years have seen great improvements in the treatment of diabetes, but much more research is needed, especially in regard to causes, prevention and novel treatment strategies."

-- Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper

By David McFadden
Research Writer

Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper began her work helping to unlock some of the myriad mysteries of diabetes when she became a tenure-stream assistant professor at the Faculty of Medicine in 1995.

Now, more than 25 years later, Dr. Harper’s innovative research and pursuit of excellence at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine is being celebrated nationally. She has just been named as the 2021 recipient of the Diabetes Canada Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dr. Harper says she “never imagined” she’d receive a prestigious award like this when she started her career. But over the years, as she became a globally recognized scientist and her work racked up accolades, it became abundantly clear to many colleagues that she was driven to conduct research at the highest level.

In a recent letter announcing Dr. Harper’s award, Diabetes Canada said its competitive honour recognizes the “lifetime commitment and outstanding achievements of a Canadian individual to research excellence.”

The award for the uOttawa professor couldn’t come at a more apt moment: 2021 is the centenary of the discovery of insulin—a hormone which regulates levels of glucose in the blood—by Canadian scientists.

And the prevalence of diabetes is growing. Diabetes is a metabolic disease now afflicting over 460 million people worldwide, with one in three Canadians living with diabetes or prediabetes.

Dr. Harper notes that collaborations at uOttawa, affiliated institutions and with international colleagues have helped guide her work. Her lab in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology participates in numerous collaborative projects, allowing a thorny research problem to be examined from complementary perspectives, paving the way for scientific advances.

“They also help us grow as scientists, and working as a collaborative team really is enjoyable,” says Dr. Harper, an alumna of uOttawa.

At uOttawa, Dr. Harper has collaborated with numerous clinicians and researchers, but her work with Faculty of Medicine colleagues Dr. Ruth McPherson and Dr. Robert Dent has been the most extensive. Over two decades, projects with these two partners have served as a focal point for research into mitochondrial energetics. Mitochondria are the energy powerhouses in the body’s cells.

“Clinical questions have driven our mechanistic research, and our findings from the latter are helping clinicians better understand and treat diverse clinical phenotypes,” she says.

Reviewing her career so far, Dr. Harper says mentoring and training the next generation of dynamic researchers at uOttawa has been a particularly enjoyable part of her role. “I think all scientists recognize that they are who they are as scientists because of the training and support that they received from their supervisors and mentors,” she says.

She notes that she gets to work with “awesome trainees” as director of the NSERC-funded Metabolomics Advanced Training and International Exchange (MATRIX) program, and through her role leading the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology (OISB), among other leadership posts.

Although Dr. Harper is being lauded for achievements over her lifetime, she’s hardly planning on taking it easy. She said the important work of diabetes research demands renewed focus.

“Recent years have seen great improvements in the treatment of diabetes, but much more research is needed, especially in regard to causes, prevention and novel treatment strategies,” she says. 

As part of her award, Dr. Harper will receive $5,000 and give a virtual lecture during the Diabetes Canada/Canadian Society of Endocrinology & Metabolism professional conference in late November.

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Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper

Dr. Mary-Ellen Harper


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