DAVID CHAREST - Director, Sector Development

David Charest

Director, Sector Development - Genome British Columbia.

I was born/grew up in: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

I now live in: Vancouver, BC, Canada

I completed my training/education at: Honours BSc, Simon Fraser University; PhD, University of British Columbia

Describe what you do at work.

At this stage in my career I am more of a generalist than a specialist in a given area of scientific research. I don't work in a laboratory but my training is essential for me to understand how scientists go about their business to solve interesting basic or applied research questions. In the morning I could be reading a bee research proposal and in the afternoon working with a surgeon who treats patients with cancer. In other words I know a little bit of about everything rather than a lot of detail about a few things.

It took me a long time to realize that I could use my degree and research training in other areas of scientific knowledge. I chose to work in biotechnology after my PhD while others continued to pursue their dream of working in a university. I currently work with Genome BC. Our goal is economic development. We want to invest money in projects that support the use of new genomic (genes) technologies that will have an positive impact on different sectors like agriculture, health, forestry and mining. My work focuses on building partnerships that bring together the necessary industry and academic experts to work on key challenges and opportunities for the benefit of society by creating new products and services that longer term will create new jobs.

When I was a student I enjoyed:

How does your job affect people’s lives?

Genomics (genes) and proteomics (proteins) technologies are where the the mobile telephone and internet were 20-30 years ago. Until recently genomics was used exclusively in the laboratories of universities. Now the cost of using these technologies has decreased very rapidly such that they are being applied more broadly in society. Medical doctors can better diagnose disease at a gene level which may lead to better treatments and outcomes, plant breeders can develop new varieties of crops faster to adapt to our changing climate, or microbes (e.g. bacteria) previously unknown are being discovered that can breakdown contaminants on land and in water. Companies can now do a DNA test to uncover your ancestry. How cool is that!

What motivates you in your career?

The work I do helps others to improve the world and that is what inspires me. I work for an organization that funds projects by catalyzing partnerships with smart and clever people from BC, Canada and around the world. The projects we fund focus on research that will have a benefit to society and/or the economy. I get to work with these researchers, industry partners, government departments, health authorities and sector groups to develop projects that will make the world a better place. In my organization I work with people who are trained in finance, law, communications and government relations. Over the years I have learned new skills from all of them.

When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:

Describe your career path to this career.

Like many youth in Canada I completed high school. During those years I worked at different labour jobs in demolition, construction and trucking. These weekend and summer work experiences with physical labour really made think about what else I could do that would challenging me intellectually.

A university education seemed like the logical direction to take even though many members of my extended family never completed elementary school let alone secondary school. This was unknown territory for me and my first year in university was a disaster. Many things went wrong from finances to lack of support systems to help me along the way. Not to be discouraged I returned to the following year with better success. I started out in kinesiology only to take a course in genetics. This really changed my interest toward how life is influenced and directed by genes and proteins.

In my sophomore year I joined the Co-op program. I was almost not accepted because there were other students with higher grades. I persisted and secured my first job in an organic chemistry lab focused on determining the structure of moth pheromones (communication molecules that influence animal behaviour). I also found a part-time job working in a genetics lab in which my individual research project led to a self-directed honours project and later to a publication in very good genetics journal.

After 5.5 years of undergraduate study I decided to work as a research technician at a university lab for 3 years. This allowed me to have a break from school, pay back my student loan and think about next steps. I was working in a molecular biology and biochemistry lab in signal transduction (communication molecules between and within cell). Because I was hard working, independent and analytical with good problem solving skills (all things you learn all along your educational path) I was given a lot of freedom to lead research projects with little or no focus on lab management activities like purchasing, equipment maintenance etc.

After 3 years I pulled the trigger and entered a PhD program working in the same lab. The field I was working in was very competitive. Research papers were coming out in prestigious journals on research I was trying to do on my own. (I was getting scooped badly!). I was stubborn and thought that more hard work would allow me to compete against these larger labs. It was during my PhD that I learned the value of collaboration and that the old view of the lone scientist was outdated and unproductive. I carry this lesson into everything I do as I realize now that science is done globally and partnerships can be created with researchers anywhere in the world.

After finishing my PhD I decided that I wanted to take a different direction than becoming a professor. I always had an interest in solving problems through science and working for a biotechnology company trying to find medicines for cancer or Alzheimer's meant that what I did could have an impact on someone's life. My current position similarly requires good communications skills and an interest and ability to work in a team and in partnership. This makes the work all that more rewarding because you can share the success and the difficulties with others who are equally passionate about the work.

What activities do you like to do outside of work?

In order to achieve optimally in my job I need to have several important aspects of my life in place. Most important is having great relationships with family and friends. Daily physical activity like cycling, running and playing recreational sports like basketball counterbalance the work I do at a desk all day. Also mentally it is essential for me to spend time in nature hiking, kayaking or skiing to clear the mind and recharge. I also like to attend live music that is different and unique like african, folk, francophone, jazz and rock are great distractions and get me in a different space.

What advice or encouragement would you give others seeking a similar career?

Take risks and be open to exploring new opportunities. This may involve applying for a job or studying a course outside of your area of interest. Who knows like me it may make you take your career in a new direction or think and approach a problem differently. Much of the science and technology research done today requires people with skills and knowledge in many different areas and disciplines.

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