For double McGill alumna Prof. Dana Small, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Metabolism and the Brain, the road to high-profile discovery-driven research had some unusual stops along the way. 


“I’m a psychologist,” said Dana Small (MScA’98, PhD’01). “My interest is behaviour and brain relationships. In a way, though, I guess I’m a wayward psychologist because I got into metabolism. One thing has led to another.”


Prof. Small was talking last month in an office at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) that she’s been using since being chosen for the Canadian Excellence Research Chair in Brain and Metabolism, a prestigious position that has brought her back to the city of her postgraduate years after two decades at Yale. It’s a cozy nook with enough space for a computer desk, a small table, and her e-bike, which she prefers not to leave outside. She had just returned from a two-day conference in Copenhagen on precision nutrition, a detail that offers a handy indication as to how far she has ranged beyond the standard psychologist’s remit. Hers has indeed been an uncommonly circuitous route, one in which food and metabolism loom large. More of which later.


Small’s story starts on Vancouver Island, where she grew up the only child of a single mother who had epilepsy. Not only was it a situation that engendered a serious sense of responsibility in her at an early age, but it set her on the path she follows to this day.


“When I was 11,” she said, “I wrote a time capsule that said, ‘I want to be a brain scientist.’ That was because of my mom. I would see her lose her consciousness with seizures. I also saw her change with seizure medication. That’s what really drove my interest in the brain. How could she be conscious one minute and not conscious the next? What was going on there? From that time, my holy grail as a scientist has been to understand consciousness.”


The opportunity to put that mission into practice had to wait. First came a youthful adventure that saw the aspiring musician make a leap of faith and move to Montreal. It was to prove a fateful choice.


“I drove across the country with my cat and worldly possessions in a little Toyota Tercel,” she recalled. “My plans were vague but included taking creative writing courses at Concordia and playing flamenco guitar.”


Arriving in the low-rent early 1990s, an era when the day-at-a-time bohemian lifestyle was still possible, Small found herself falling in love with the city and with francophone culture. She quickly became a habituée of the city’s independent music scene, busking on Prince Arthur Street, getting to know future stars Rufus Wainwright and Lhasa de Sela, and writing a music column for the magazine Image (now long defunct). Soon enough, though, a reckoning came.


“That’s right,” she said with a chuckle. “Once in a great while I managed to find a music gig that paid. But I got hungry, literally, because I wasn’t good enough. It was time to come up with a career path.”


To keep a toehold in the science world, Small had volunteered as a research assistant in an animal lab in the psychology department at Concordia. A short-lived idea to combine teaching with travel ended when, through a serendipitous series of events, she met Marilyn Jones-Gotman (MA’71, PhD’75), a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery working on epilepsy, who was to become her McGill doctoral advisor and mentor.


Fast forward, beyond the PhD and several years at Yale, and Small was grappling with whether to sign on with the Max Planck Institute in Munich—they had cold-called her during the pandemic asking if she wanted to be a director—when the possibility of the Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) came up.


“I loved Yale,” Small stressed. “I had a great time there. My husband (astrophysicist Pieter Van Dokkum) is still on the faculty there, my stepdaughter is an undergraduate there. But the idea of coming back to Canada was always in my mind. CERC meant I could have a whole lot of new opportunities and I could do it at home.”


One of those opportunities, in fact, the chief focus of Small’s CERC time hitherto, involves the metabolism portion of her brain-and-metabolism research.


“Obesity is now the number one risk factor for dementia, apart from age,” she said. “The food environment, and being obese, are somehow damaging the brain. It’s going to take a concerted effort to change this, but I do have hope, I do see traction.”


As it happens, some of Small’s thoughts on food and the food environment are currently reaching a global audience. She appears in the new theatrically released documentary feature Food, Inc. 2, a sequel to the Oscar-nominated 2008 Robert Kenner film.


“I’m in it for about fifteen minutes. My son thinks it’s super cool,” she said with a smile.


A seminal and entirely unanticipated event in Small’s life came in 2017 when, in the course of a routine checkup while she was visiting Montreal, it was discovered that she had thyroid cancer; surgery was performed at Yale in early 2018. The procedure was successful, although it has had lasting after-effects.


“Prior to the surgery I functioned very well on five to six hours of sleep per night,” she said. “I was a workaholic. I ran, on average, about forty miles a week. Afterwards, I have needed anywhere between eight and fourteen hours of sleep, and titrating the thyroid medicine to optimize sleep has been an ongoing ordeal. Finding the energy to run has also been hard. I’m lucky if I run ten miles per week. Needless to say, I miss my thyroid.”


Does the change have day-to-day implications for her work capacity?


“I deal with time management by listening to my own rhythms,” she said. “I work when I’m in the groove and I stop when I’m not. Very few professions allow you to do that, so I’m aware of how fortunate I am. If I had to do the same amount of work, but between nine and five… I don’t think I could do it.”


Asked if she’s someone whose work is portable—if she’s a laptop café person, for example—Small replied with a different take on the very definition of work.


“I work when I’m getting my hair done, I work on the metro. I can work almost any time and any place, and I do. Long walks and long runs are when I get the best ideas. So, ironically, you could say I do my best work when I’m not working. Do I carry a pen and a notebook? No. If it’s worth remembering, I’ll remember it.”


Talking to someone who’s back in Canada after an anticipated two-year stay in the United States stretched to twenty-plus, it’s hard not to ask what salient differences between living and working in the U.S. and here Small may have noted.


“I’ve spent twenty years thinking about that question, and this one: what is the difference between Canadians and Americans? I think it’s down to the fact that, in Canada, you’re told, and you have the feeling, that you are entitled to health and the basics you need to survive, and you can do whatever you want on top of that. In the U.S., you have to work for all those basic things. So Americans are much more competitive. There’s a feeling of insecurity there, and that makes people more focused on making sure they get what they need.”


Presently halfway through the first year of her eight-year CERC tenure, Small is relishing the self-directed freedom and flexibility the position affords her. It’s clear the chance to prioritize her scientific calling is something she intends to make the most of. A hint of her zeal ends up being revealed when she’s asked to name a favourite piece of music, a favourite book, and a hero from history.


“Music? Anything by Lhasa. I get goosebumps just thinking about her songs. I also have to mention Paco de Lucia, the flamenco guitarist. As for a favourite book, I love Russian literature, so I’ll say Pale Fire by Nabokov. And if I could go back in time and talk to one person, it would be da Vinci. I like bicycles, and I also really appreciate the fact that he was interested in human biology and how things work.”


A kindred spirit in arts-and-science affinity, then?


“Yes, that’s it. I actually conceive of science and the arts as very similar. The fundamental thing behind each of them is the same, and that’s discovery. It’s just in different domains. The things that I love about science I find beautiful and profound. The reason I do it is because the feeling of discovery, of knowing something for the first time ever, is like nothing else. It doesn’t happen often, but those moments sustain you.”