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Guelph native receives Governor General’s Award

Guelph-born musician and award-winning research scientist Mark Stradiotto says that leading a team of molecular research scientists is a lot like playing in a good band

When Mark Stradiotto was a student at St James Catholic High School in the mid 1980s, he had two passions: studying science and playing drums with a group of friends in their rock band Euphoria.

Like many teenagers of his generation, he was inspired by the influence music could have on elevating awareness of social issues and improving people’s lives, but it would ultimately be his work, leading a team of research scientists, that would give him the opportunity to truly change the world.

“There are a lot of similarities between playing in a band and working with a research team,” said Stradiotto. “When I tell people that, they say, ‘You’re just a geek scientist who is trying to make it sound cool’, but I have to convince my team members to buy into this crazy idea and I have to listen to them too. This is exactly what music is – improvising. This is what jamming is, what collaborating is. It’s exactly all those things.”

The “crazy idea” Stradiotto sold to his research team at Dalhousie University in Halifax has led to ground-breaking developments in molecular science and the creation of ligand catalysts.

“If you flex your muscle and release to show off your biceps, there is a whole cascade of chemical reactions that make that happen,” said Stradiotto. “Catalysts play an important role in turning off and turning on reactions. Otherwise, that is how people get things like Parkinson’s, where they have dysregulation of that process.”  

Their research has earned Stradiotto and his team several awards including, most recently, the 2023 Governor General’s Award for Innovation.

“Mark’s catalysts are used worldwide both by academics and the pharmaceutical industry in the discovery of new medicines,” said presenter Zeba Ahmad, during the Governor General’s Innovation Awards gala in Ottawa, Thursday. “It is very complicated, so I am looking forward to seeing the video.”

In a short video played for gala attendees, Stradiotto attempts to provide a simple description of their complicated research.

“My research team invented ligands that when connected to metals are able to function as catalysts that allow us to clip together reacting molecules kind of like Lego to build up much more complicated molecules,” he said. “These are powerful tools that can be used to develop treatments for central nervous system disease and new antibiotics to treat auto-immune diseases.”

The ligands can also be used to develop new crop treatments and green energy technology.

Stradiotto spoke to GuelphToday from Ottawa the morning after the awards gala as he waited for his flight home to Halifax where he lives with his wife of 20 years and their three children.  

“Receiving the Governor General’s Award is a very humbling and prestigious thing because I think of all the impressive work of other chemists and scientists across the country, as well as all the other award winners,” said Stradiotto. “I really don’t think of myself as someone who is particularly insightful, or a genius, or whatever, but I can come up with crazy ideas and I can work with people to quickly understand whether this is the right way forward.”

It is his enduring sense of modesty and collaboration that drew Guelph guitarist Adrian Raso and Stradiotto together as teenagers during the 1980s and cemented their lifelong friendship.

“I like to kid him that he only got into science because he knew he couldn’t make it in music, but he was always an insatiable learner,” said Raso. “I’m not surprised he’s getting the Governor General’s Award and I won’t be surprised when he gets the Nobel Prize.”

The two friends reunited recently after more than 20 years to perform locally and record new music.  They both look back fondly on their high school years in Guelph and the formative experience of playing together in their first band, Euphoria.

“St James was a special school,” said Raso. “We were lucky back then to have a whole cast of supportive teachers who were really catalysts for our creative growth.”

Stradiotto said he takes a lot of ribbing from his colleagues and his kids about being a rock n’ roll scientist, but he is quick to point out that performing with a band helped him build the courage and confidence he needed to take chances and pursue his passion.

“You can’t be a good musician just by thinking about it,” said Stradiotto. “You’ve got to do it. At the end of the day if you have the respect of your team and you have good teammates who can collaborate and you keep pushing yourself to be brave in your ideas, you might end up in a good place and that is exactly what happened with us. That is truthfully what happened with us.”

Learn more the Stradiotto Reserach Group here.  

To watch the 2023 Governor General's Innovation Awards ceremony visit here.