Written by Alex Chiang
To many life science graduates, Health Canada embodies the supreme institution that is responsible for protecting the health of all Canadians. Situated in the nation’s capital and employing over 10,000 staff members, Health Canada is the federal agency that regulates a wide variety of healthcare products, including drugs, biologics, medical devices, controlled substances, veterinary medicines, and natural health products. Despite its clear mission, the internal workings of Health Canada are often a mystery to the outside world; and due its sheer size, even navigating between the different departments or divisions can be daunting.
In this interview, Adeline Ng shares with us her experience with Health Canada as an assessment officer (AO), and her back-and-forth journey between school and government. In the excerpts below, she gives us an insightful glimpse into what her job entails, and why she is one of the many scientists working hard at ensuring Canadians’ health.
What is your educational background and what did you do before entering the government?
I did my BSc in Microbiology at the U of T, and when I finished my BSc in the year 2000, like many people, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So in the same year, I started grad school. I wanted to expand beyond the field of Microbiology, so I decided to do my MSc at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the U of T, conducting research in bone biology. After completing my MSc, I continued to work at the laboratory of my supervisor to wrap up some experiments. At the same time, I worked as a medical writer. I took on contract work such as medical transcription and drafting patient information documents, where you summarize technical knowledge and translate it into layman’s term for patients.
How did you get into Health Canada?
I was working as a research assistant and medical writer simultaneously, and one day a friend of mine mentioned to me that there was a shortage for project managers at Health Canada and that they were hiring for this position. I went online, created a profile, and applied through an open competition, which consists of an initial HR screening followed by an exam. Even though I was not offered the position I originally applied for, I was considered for a position in another department based on my expertise in bone biology. For this second position, I passed several rounds of technical exams and interviews, and was hired as a junior AO. Ultimately, I think I was at the right place at the right time with the right educational qualifications.
What are your job duties as an assessment officer at Health Canada?
Health Canada is a very big organization. I worked at the Health Protection and Food Branch (HPFB). More specifically, I am in the Therapeutics Products Directorate (TBD) sub-division that is responsible for small molecules. Within this division, different clinical areas are arbitrarily divided into different bureaus, and I am in the Bureau of Metabolism, Oncology, and Reproductive Sciences. Within that, I work in the Metabolic and Musculoskeletal Drugs Division, which is a clinical division. My position is an AO, also called reviewers, and I review drug submissions for diseases such as arthritis and diabetes with regards to the drug’s safety and efficacy. The third aspect of drug applications, which is quality, is handled by other non-clinical divisions.
What is a typical day like at work?
The project managers receive all the dossiers and they are in charge of assigning them to the reviewers. Different dossiers require varying amounts of work, and you may handle two to five dossiers at any given time. Day in and day out, my work is very much a desk job. I don’t create science, I don’t do science, but I review science. Very often, I also communicate with the sponsors via face-to-face meetings or video-conferencing, for example, to request more clinical data or to clarify questions. Essentially, it is very solitary work. However, outside of the typical work, there are special working groups or committees that I am requested to sit on. For example, I was part of a committee that deals with updating product monographs for women’s health products.
Why did you decide to go back to school?
After having worked at Health Canada for five years, I felt that further education is needed to advance my scientific expertise. Therefore, I took an education leave and came back to the U of T to pursue my PhD. Since I worked at the Musculoskeletal Division at Health Canada, I decided to conduct my PhD research in bone biology, hence building on my previous education in this research field and thereby making this clinical area my field of expertise. In addition, as I mentioned before, it is common to be part of certain special working groups at Health Canada. For some committees, for example the committees on international policies, it is more advantageous to hold a PhD degree as you may be representing Health Canada at international conferences. This was also part of the reason why I decided to come back and pursue my PhD.
Acting as the guardian of public health, the assessment officer at Health Canada utilizes his/her scientific expertise to review and assess drug applications. The outcome of their critical and thorough assessments directly impacts the safety and health of many people; hence, the job comes with great responsibilities. As a career, this position is ideal for someone who understands science, enjoys applying scientific knowledge to the context of regulatory submissions, and has an active interest in being at the forefront of and safeguarding public health.
A Health Canada employee video profile featuring our interviewee Adeline Ng