Dr. Sean Morrison: Stem Cell Researcher
About This Episode
$150-million over 10 years. It could easily have been an announcement about the signing of the latest phenom in the NHL, NBA or NFL. Dr. Sean Morrison even jokes that if had won the genetic lottery for size, strength and speed, playing centre for the Montreal Canadiens would have been high on his list of his dreams as a kid. But it turned out that he had other talents into which he could channel his fiercely competitive nature and relentless curiosity about the world around him.
Dr. Sean Morrison at the Children’s Medical Research Insitute in Dallas, Texas. In his case, the one-hundred-and-fifty large ones— and two empty floors of an office tower — were the resources he received to start an entirely new organization, the Children’s Medical Research Institute at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas. It was one of the largest offers in the history of academia. More importantly, it was an entirely blank canvas onto which he could paint the research institute of his remarkable imagination. When asked what he thought about the enormity of the challenge that lay before him at that time, he remembers coming up with just one word:
It succinctly and yet accurately sums up both the man and his work. It all started, when he was just a kid, with an award-winning high school science project catalyzed with a summer science program called SHAD. That eventually resulted in the agricultural biotech startup Endogro Systems which Sean co-founded with his friend Brent Walker. They were so young that while they had signed a shareholders agreement, they were too young to be legally bound by it. Endogro’s promise was enormous — to change agriculture by replacing chemical fertilizers with a biological equivalent to increase crop yields. He continued with that work as he entered Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia to study biology and chemistry. However, Endogro was eventually dealt a cruel blow by the 1987 stock market crash. With that, there was no way to raise the necessary capital to take Endogro to the next stage of growth.
This inflection point gave Sean the opportunity to think deliberately about where he wanted to take his career next. He came to a startling conclusion: if he was going to devote his life to being the best he could be at something, it was going to be in a field that engendered a truly “visceral” reaction in the public it served. For him, that meant just one thing: medical research. If that wasn’t a sufficiently hard target, he decided to focus on the most intractable problems of cancer therapies and in particular the groundbreaking use of stem cells in that fight. After Dalhousie, he studied first at Stanford with Dr. Irv Weissman and then at Caltech with Professor David Anderson, both world-renowned experts in the field. He spent more than a decade at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor continuing the work as a member of the faculty. He was happy there not only in the work he was undertaking and its impact but, as he half-jokingly says, “there is more hockey in Ann Arbor than there is anywhere else in the world.”
Then the call from UT Southwestern came and eventually the dream offer to start his own lab — from scratch. We sat down with Dr. Sean Morrison at his now up-and-running, built-out lab. The interview is a highly engaging story of a remarkable career. What’s more, you get a strong sense that you’re catching Sean mid-arc; that there is so much of the story yet to be told.
Sean Morrison is endowed with many talents but it’s the intersection of three that make him unique: he’s a gifted scientist endowed with amazing technical skills coupled with an ability to attract top talent to form teams “optimized for discovery and innovation.” Add to that a lifelong history of entrepreneurship rooted in the belief that science for its own sake doesn’t help humanity; discoveries have to get out into the public and solve real, human problems. Finally, Sean is an extraordinarily articulate communicator. Not only is he able to take his enormously complex field of study and make it understandable for anybody, he does it was an enthusiasm you can almost feel.
Join us for our in-depth interview with Dr. Sean Morrison. He makes science, well, as he says…“Cool!”