Assistant Professor in Pathology
What is a typical day like for you?
I get up at 5 am and check my e-mail. I usually go for a run or a swim, eat breakfast and arrive at work with my coffee (or more likely Pepsi) at around 9 – 9:30 am. I say hello to the other scientists on my team, and we discuss what their plans are for the day. I then settle in to my office.
I usually spend about 50% of the time in my office where I spend my time planning experiments, writing scientific papers, preparing grant proposals (to get the funding to conduct the research we do and to pay the people who work for me), reviewing papers and grants that others have written (in a process called “peer review” that decides what research gets published and what grants get funded), reading published articles on subjects related to my research interests, preparing presentations, managing administrative tasks related. There are always an infinite number of items on the to-do list, however, I largely set my own priorities, and I am largely able to decide which tasks I work on in which order. People come and go from my office regularly throughout the day to ask questions, tell me about exciting results they have, seek my advice or sell me things.
When I am not in my office, I am probably at a scientific talk, or (more likely) in a meeting: lab meetings, student committee meetings, administrative committees, hiring committee meetings, education committee meetings, peer review committee meetings, etc… Most of these meetings are actually quite interesting (for me, particularly those where we are talking about the ongoing science with our team or with our collaborators).
Towards the end of the day, it usually gets quieter, and I usually focus on tasks that involve writing where it is easier with minimal disruptions. I tend to stay until 6 or 7 pm, but when the weather calls for it, I leave to go surfing, climbing, mountain biking or running in the woods at 5.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
I very much enjoy the parts of my day where I get to discuss the ongoing research with the members of my team. It is always fun to think of new questions and to come up with clever ways to answer them. These days, I find it equally satisfying to hear my trainees come up with clever strategies, and I hope that I contribute to their enthusiasm and satisfaction for solving problems and finding answers.
What is the least enjoyable part of your job?
For me, managing a large team of individuals is both the most satisfying and at times the most difficult part of my job. When members of my team are not happy, I am not happy.
Explain the path you took to get to this job (education, internships, etc.).
I always loved the challenge that science offered. I enrolled in courses in University that I found challenging and therefore engaging. Over time, it became apparent that these choices were leading me towards obtaining my degree in Mathematics and Chemistry. I had the philosophy that if I continue to study things I enjoy, eventually this would lead to a career I enjoy. As I approached the end of my undergraduate degree, I met with professors and read about potential careers where I could apply what I had learned. But it was at this point that I realized that what I really loved was the learning itself. Simply performing what I already knew did not sound appealing. I had no idea what a career in research entailed, but it seemed clear that it would always involve learning new things. I contacted the Department of Pharmacology and began spending time in a research lab while taking Pharmacology courses. I obtained a Master’s then a PhD in Pharmacology. From there, the research itself has influenced my path. I spent 2 years working as a researcher in Edmonton, Alberta and then 4 years in Geneva, Switzerland before returning to Halifax, where now I have my own lab.
Who or what was the greatest influence that set you on this path?
My supervisor for my Master’s degree, Dr Ken Renton, was a great scientist and a great mentor. His positive attitude about science and about the people who he worked with, his leadership style, his ethical principles, and his wisdom let me see what a great job this could be. His balanced approach to work, family and play made me see what a great life this career could allow.
What advice would you give others seeking a similar job?
I still think taking a selection of courses that are challenging and interesting, courses that require you to solve problems, to ask why, and to think critically is an important step in developing the skills required for this job. Ask yourself the questions like “How do they know this to be true?” and “What is the evidence that something has to be this way? Could it not be explained in this other way”.
How does your job make a difference?
My research finds the gene mutations that cause diseases. Sometimes this can help doctors decide how a patient should be treated. Sometimes it can help family members know whether they might also be at risk of getting the disease or passing it to their children. It can help in finding new treatments. It can help doctors decide if a family member is a good candidate for donating an organ, or if they are also carrying the damaged gene.
Once we know the damaged gene, we then use cells grown in dishes to try to find characteristics that are different in cells that have the mutation from cells that don’t. Maybe they grow faster or slower, maybe they are less resistant to certain drugs or chemicals. By understanding how the cells are not working, we get closer to finding solutions that eventually can become treatments for patients.
How do you use science, math and technology in your job?
Science is basically a systematic approach to studying things. Science allows us to organize what is known, to define what the questions are, and then to devise systematic ways to answer these questions. For me, the most important aspect of designing scientific experiments is not just knowing what we can conclude from a particular study, but knowing what the experiment is not able to tell us. What other explanations could there be for an observation? Can we think of ways to take that into account in our study design?
I actually use quite a lot of Math in my job. We routinely calculate concentrations and dilutions, we perform statistics and probabilities, and we find equations that describe the data we see, and draw graphs and charts to describe our data.
My research involves genetics. Technology has had a huge impact on this area of research. As technology advance, we are able to get more genetic information, faster, cheaper, and with less material. Advances in computing mean we are able to manage larger quantities of data that previously was not possible.
What makes this job right for you?
I like the intellectual challenge, that fact that I work with such an incredible group of bright, talented individuals, and the flexibility to determine my day-to-day work flow.
What's the most bizarre or silliest thing you’ve ever done in this job?
There is never anything super bizarre, but there were some failed attempts to rig up our own “home-made” pieces of equipment that have sometimes ended in somewhat silly messes. Our lab group has made some fairly silly T-shirts and “trivia” questions for social events. I often get to travel for conferences and during these I have been known to get up at bizarre hours of the morning to go climbing or to explore the wildlife of the area.
What activities do you like to do outside of work?
I enjoy a wide range of sport-y activities.
You just won $10 million! What’s the first thing you’d do?
Pay back my student loans :)