Cannon aims high thanks to passion for neuroscience and research

12 May 2015

Something about Carleton pushed him to be different, John Cannon ’15 says.

Although he considered himself an average student in high school, coming to Carleton opened up a world of possibilities for him. “They push you to learn who you are here,” says Cannon, from Toronto. “And I realized I could be anyone I wanted to be.”

So he challenged himself. He decided that he didn’t need to be the quiet kid all the time, and he registered for upper-level Cell Biology his freshman year, not realizing its reputation of difficulty. Here, he discovered his passion for neuroscience and research.

“I realized that I could spend 80 hours in the lab a week and think that was perfectly reasonable and actually pretty awesome,” Cannon says.

And in just four years at Carleton, Cannon has gone from being an “average kid” to publishing research in two scientific journals, presenting his results at multiple conferences attended by 30,000 neuroscientists, co-authoring and illustrating two chapters in a surgical textbook, and landing a job in Nobel laureate Richard Axel’s research lab upon graduation.

Recently he’s also assumed a leadership role on campus, forming a bioinformatics student group. Bioinfomatics combines biological data with computer science and computer programing, and Cannon noticed there wasn’t much of that happening at Carleton. He and his group worked on a few projects and submitted their results to Nature Publishing Groups journal Scientific Reports; currently, they are awaiting editorial review.

“That’s been exciting,” he says. “Every other instance I’ve been working under a lab head, and here I get to be in a leadership position.”

Solving problems is what drives him to engage in research. But Cannon also wants to keep in mind the human side of science. Over winter break of his junior year, he worked on a diagnostic laparoscopy research project at Sunnybrook Research Institute, where the clinician and her team proved that a camera inserted through a small abdominal incision led to better decisions about abdominal surgery than an MRI or ultrasound. Meeting the patients who avoided surgery thanks to the diagnostic laparoscopy showed him how lab research affected real people, Cannon says, which was powerful.

“It felt really meaningful,” he says. “I could connect with the patients, and that’s something that’s often missing in science. It’s something I want to remain aware of.”

Clinical relevance is also important to him as he embarks upon his research career, he says. Most of the work he’s done so far has been more basic science, and he would like to build upon that to see tangible applications of his research. For instance, next year he will be working in Dr. Axel’s lab on a more detailed understanding of brain cells.

“If we could identify cell types more accurately, we could design pharmaceutical treatments that would act more specifically,” Cannon says. “And if we could even make small, incremental steps toward that, it would have a huge capacity for helping people.”

The Cannon File

  • Published work: Clinical paper published in World Journal of Oncology; co-authored two chapters in Laparoscopy: Procedures, Pain Management and Postoperative Complications
  • Presented at: American Society for Cell Biology, Society of Neuroscience
  • Next stop: After a year researching at Columbia University, John plans on applying to MD/PhD programs and going wherever his research takes him. Not bad for a guy who admits to struggling with chemistry in high school!