Student Researcher, Tom Baker Cancer Center
I was born/grew up in: Calgary, AB - Canada
I now live in: Calgary, AB - Canada
I completed my training/education at: Bachelor of Health Sciences in Biomedical Sciences – University of Calgary
Describe what you do at work.
I am a third-year Bachelor of Health Sciences student at the University of Calgary, but my major professional commitment is as a Student Researcher at the Tom Baker Cancer Center. In the latter role, I collaborate to design, execute, and present clinical trials and database research studies. My current research focus is identifying effective treatments for pancreatic and lung cancer.
My work is very diverse in nature. On any given day, I could be scouring the scientific literature to better understand a condition; writing a project proposal for a new clinical trial we are considering; conducting statistical analysis on one of our previous studies; or preparing for an upcoming presentation I’m giving on our research. I’ve given research presentations across the country, and have had the chance to see Canada and meet many interesting people in doing so.
Most of my work doesn’t happen in isolation. I also spend a lot of time working with my research team, composed of doctors, researchers, statisticians, and other students. Much of this time is spent on team problem-solving. One of us will bring a new idea or new research findings to our team. We then sit down with a whiteboard to figure out how to design a study that answers this research question, or how to interpret these new findings and the implications of them for patients.
This work requires strong soft skills: communication skills, to collaborate with teams; presentation skills, to share our research findings with the community; and writing skills, to prepare project proposals and write up manuscripts. It also requires strong hard skills: an understanding of biology and chemistry, to understand how the treatments we’re considering interact with the biology of cancer; and strong math skills, which are required for clinical trial design, statistical analysis, and to interpret research findings.
When I was a student I enjoyed:
How does your job affect people’s lives?
The work I do directly impacts cancer patients. The clinical trials I do have cancer patients as their subjects, and have a chance of improving these patients’ disease. Some of the data-driven studies I have done have also changed the standard treatment for cancer patients in Alberta. Being able to directly impact cancer patients’ lives motivates my work: it grounds the research I do in reality and makes the time I spend working fulfilling.
What motivates you in your career?
Why I enjoy my career can be divided into three major categories: intellectual challenge, interpersonal interaction, and impact.
I enjoy intellectual challenge and find it stimulating – to constantly be developing new skills and pushing at my personal boundaries, and also to be pushing at the boundaries of existing knowledge. My current role fulfills both of these aims admirably. There are always opportunities to do something new, and to stretch my capabilities as a result. Furthermore, research is by definition intended to expand what is currently known. This constant challenge keeps me on my toes and is fulfilling.
Interpersonal interaction plays a major role. Cancer research is not siloed, especially in the clinical context. No clinical investigation happens in isolation. Several different types of physicians, researchers, statisticians, and patients are all stakeholders. Engaging these stakeholders leads to stimulating conversations; whether these conversations are focused on trial design or interpreting the implications of research findings, they are always engaging and contribute meaningfully to our common aim.
Cancer research has a clear, demonstrable impact on society. I’ve had the chance to see my research lead to changes in clinical practice that benefit patients, either reducing the toxicities they suffer or increasing their chances at survival. Beyond this tangible impact, all the work I do is disseminated via presentations or publications: it has the potential to touch cancer patients internationally.
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
Describe your career path to this career.
In high school, I was directionless – I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue engineering, mathematics, computer science, medicine, or just drop out and become a chef. Ultimately, I realized that I wanted work that would have a tangible beneficial impact to society at large. I also wanted a career that would simultaneously challenge me intellectually and be interpersonal in nature – so I opted to aim to study medicine.
I always thought of research as a field with high barriers to entry – that you needed a doctorate to really get involved in. However, I was fortunate to have some very generous mentors take me under their wing at the beginning of my undergraduate degree. Through the past three years, they’ve guided me from not understanding what cancer was to designing clinical trials. Their guidance has influenced my career choice and trajectory, and has enabled me to meaningfully contribute co cancer research.
What activities do you like to do outside of work?
In my spare time, I enjoy cooking, reading, playing ping-pong and board games, and relaxing with my friends and family. I also love teaching and mentoring: I run a non-profit organization called Operation Med School, and mentor numerous students.
What advice or encouragement would you give others seeking a similar career?
Embrace challenge. No growth happens in your comfort zone. Similarly, research requires you to push past the boundaries of current knowledge. By identifying what you can currently do—or what is currently known—and constantly pushing at that boundary, you will achieve amazing things over time.
Let’s Talk Science recognizes and thanks Rahul Arora for his contribution to Canada 2067.