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"I get the most satisfaction from watching my young colleagues progress and become good leaders and scientists."
Dr. Raymond Rajotte is a dedicated member of Alberta’s medical community who is equally respected for his pioneering work in diabetes research in islet transplantation and his exceptional service as a mentor to generations of Alberta scientists and surgeons.
There were indications of the scientist he would become during Ray’s early years on the family farm outside Wainwright, Alberta. He inherited determination and a pioneering spirit from his father and grandparents who arrived from Quebec to homestead in 1908. He was also an inquisitive and innovative young man who revelled in the self-sufficiency that came with rural life. While attending Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan, he was deeply influenced by the words of Father Athol Murray, who urged each student to “set high goals for yourself.”
Ray moved to Edmonton in 1965 to attend the X-ray Technologist program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and was part of its first graduating class. During his early years working at the Edmonton General Hospital Ray met a young nurse named Gloria. They were married in 1966 following a whirlwind romance.
At the Edmonton General, Ray also met Dr. George Bondar who involved him in research projects at the hospital. Ray’s work developed into an interest in biomedical engineering and he decided to further his education at the University of Alberta. He tailored his studies to both medicine and engineering, earning a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Electrical Engineering.
Dr. Rajotte’s research in cryobiology took a significant turn early in his career when he attended a presentation on islets, the small structures in the pancreas responsible for insulin production. Driven by curiosity, he began experimenting with ways to freeze islets for future use in research or transplantation. He would often use his engineering training and innovation to build whatever equipment was needed, including an early version of a microwave oven. In 1975, he completed a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, with a thesis that showed islets could be successfully cryopreserved. Dr. Rajotte credits the success to his mentor, Dr. John Dosseter, who “taught him how to do research that would withstand the test of time.” Following his PhD, Dr. Rajotte completed post-doctoral training at several top research laboratories in the United States. He was recruited back to the University of Alberta to join the Departments of Surgery and Medicine.
He began assembling a team of clinical scientists with the skills needed to successfully transplant islets into patients suffering from type1 diabetes. In 1989, his team carried out Canada’s first islet transplant, using technology Dr. Rajotte developed during his PhD work. Their third transplant patient enjoyed long term insulin independence. By 1999, the Islet Transplantation Group demonstrated a 100% success rate in freeing severe diabetics from insulin injections. The process, which became known as the Edmonton Protocol, has been adopted by transplantation centres worldwide.
Dr. Rajotte’s current appointments at the U of A include Director of the Surgical-Medical Research Institute, Director of the Islet Transplantation Group, Graduate Student Coordinator for the Department of Surgery, Professor of Surgery and Medicine and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Throughout his career at the U of A, Dr. Rajotte’s research has progressed alongside his teaching duties. His leadership in the graduate program helped establish the school as one of the top graduate surgery programs in North America. Perhaps the greatest testament to Dr. Rajotte’s strengths as a mentor is the fact that many of his students were members of the original Edmonton Protocol team and now serve as U of A leaders.
His former students are also among the world-class group of researchers Dr. Rajotte is leading as Scientific Director of the newly created Alberta Diabetes Institute. The team’s goal is to strengthen Alberta’s reputation as a world leader in diabetes research, and to move from developing treatments to finding a cure. Nothing would be more fulfilling for a self-described “Alberta boy” who is thankful for the remarkable teammates and the many opportunities afforded to him by his alma mater and his home province.
Dr. Rajotte was listed among Alberta Venture Magazine’s “50 Greatest Albertans of the Last 100 Years” and has received numerous honours including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Honour, induction into the Royal Society of Canada, election as an Honourary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada. He is humble about the accolades, pointing to the teams that have stood beside him throughout his career.
When asked to describe the motivation behind his work, Dr. Rajotte lists “the challenge of it and the fact that everything is always moving forward.” He adds that “you need to be curious and persevere as it may take some time before you realize your goal.” The breakthroughs he has produced to date are proof that those two qualities can indeed produce great results. The many Alberta scientists he has mentored over the years will ensure the province continues as a research leader well into the future.