For most of his life, Timothy Caulfield was set on becoming a rock star, and he came within a Mohawk spike of actually making it. His punk band, the Citizens, opened up for the Ramones in ’83 and the new wave group he fronted, Absolute 9, was interviewed on MuchMusic a few years later. But, as luck would have it, life did him one better: Rock-star scientist.
Now one of Canada’s preeminent voices on genetics research and health, the University of Alberta professor and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy graduated from university into a world where the Human Genome Project, Dolly the sheep and stem cells were hot and prickly. He’s helped set guidelines that shape genetics today in stem cell research while, in popular science writing, he’s taken on everything from homeopathy to commercial DNA testing with scathing wit.
In fact, when I meet him in his Lansdowne home, he’s in the middle of another research experiment; for Avenue‘s fashion shoot he’s mimicking a vitamin-and-skin-care regimen like the one Katy Perry underwent for her Vogue cover shot. “I’m glowing. Can’t you tell?” he asks. He looks youthful, sure, but on account of his fringe fop hair, denim jacket and impeccable street-style fashion, not his complexion. He laughs. “You shouldn’t be able to, because it has no effect.” Being the skeptic that you are, when people meet you do they just assume you’re going to be a big bummer? [Laughs] I do get that. But I think it’s totally liberating. In science, you should always be a skeptic. I’m very excited about scientific discoveries, but claiming that they’re going to revolutionize medical care tomorrow does nobody any good. The criticism I often get is, “He’s a law professor.” But it’s a plus; I don’t have a stake in any one of the races, neither medicine or public health.
And then there’s all the pseudosciences and health trends you critique.
People want that magic bullet. Right now, it’s gluten-free. But there are five simple things you can do that will take you 90 per cent of the way to a healthy life. They’re evidence-based and known, a little boring maybe, but they work.
What are they?
You could probably name them yourself. Number one, don’t smoke. If you just quit smoking and ate at McDonald’s you’d be better off. Secondly, vigorous exercise. Then, eat nutritiously, which is a ridiculous catch-all, but it’s fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Keep yourself at a healthy weight, which is the hardest of the five. And then injury prevention, like wearing a seat belt or helmet. That’s 90 per cent of good health.
What are some of the things you’ve done for your new book?
I’ve gone on Gwyneth Paltrow’s cleanse and met with her personal doctor. I tried out for American Idol – or I should say, I tried to try out for American Idol; I went to San Francisco but I didn’t get very far because 28 is the cut-off age.
You also write about celebrity ambition. Is it easier to be an astronaut than an A-list celebrity?
It probably is. Being a movie star is impossible – full stop. People see them, and there’s a psychological phenomenon that makes them seem real, and social media makes it feel even more attainable. I’ve researched a lot of A-list celebrities and they all said they know it’s luck, they know they won the lottery. They’re not fools.
And now you’ve managed to build a celebrity profile yourself. You’re semi-regularly on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, your book was reviewed in The New York Times, there’s someone interviewing you right now. What’s that newfound status like?
I don’t think of it that way at all, but I very much enjoy talking about this stuff. I see it as a huge opportunity to share something I love. You wanted to be a rock star when you were young. Is rock-star scientist just as good?
It’s better. I always joke that had I been a little more successful at music I’d be working in a record shop right now.
Have you fallen for health fads?
In the ’90s I was getting hardcore into cycling and I was really into carb-loading, where you eat just carbohydrates before racing. And then when I got into track cycling, I got into eating ridiculous amounts of protein. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to support either one. History tells us that any time you hear a gimmick, the chances are it’s wrong.
What’s your eating regimen now?
In the morning I have a very specific diet, even when I travel. It’s muesli with no-fat yogurt, blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. It’s the highlight of my day; I’m getting aroused just talking about it. And I try not to have a big lunch or big dinner. I always take my lunch with me – always. I never go out for lunch.
What’s your workout regimen?
I lift two days a week, and I do intervals three days a week. It’s in my book, The Cure For Everything.
Your book also mentions your three loves: Your wife’s zucchini cake, M&M’s and denim. What’s your denim regiment?
I have every colour you can imagine – yellow, orange, red. I have various shades of burgundy – does that count as one colour or multiple? I don’t have white. I don’t think I could pull it off. I also own four denim jackets. I’m hoping to God denim doesn’t go out of style, otherwise I’m sunk. It’s a tie to the rock ‘n’ roll thing and music history, tied to the Clash and the way they dressed.
Your denim is a lot less torn now, I’m sure.
Yes, and I went through an ever-so-brief acid wash phase. At the same time, I had a Flock of Seagulls hairdo.
Pieces that have a retro-feel to them, that are a little bit rock ‘n’ roll but with some sophistication. Labels like Acne, A.P.C. and James Roberts out of New York.
Is there a science to your outfit?
There’s no science to it, but I like to be comfortable, not conventional. The test is if I can ride my bike in it.
You never dress like a cyclist?
No, I always laugh at that. That’s one of the great cultural differences and barriers to commuting in North America. In Europe, they hop on a bike in a suit and away they go, even if they’re doing six-K. Here, it’s an exercise. If people ride 10 minutes they think they have to have some special gear clipped in and wear a special uniform. I just hop on my bike and go, even if I’m wearing dress shoes.
You got it. I love that place and their whole philosophy and community.
How do you dress for work?
I rarely do a suit. One of the best parts of being a professor is you can dress any way you want. I like to think that I’m senior enough that when I do talks the expectation for a suit has diminished some more.