Written by Lidia Kazakova

If you’re like me, as a researcher working in a lab to answer a particular question, you may have wondered at times: is what I’m doing going to have an impact in the “real world”? Is the data I am spending months, and sometimes years to collect, going to affect society? And how do I go about making that happen? There are times when the disconnect between what you do day-to-day at your lab bench, and what eventually ends up having real-world, wide scale consequences seems too great.

The guests of the recent “Careers in Policy & Government” event hosted by LSCDS have themselves pondered these questions; so much so, that they ended up pursuing careers in science policy. The four speakers, all with diverse research backgrounds and a passion for making a change, had a chance to talk about their experience in making the transition from academia into policy, as well as offer some advice to young scientists.

The first speaker, Stephanie Holbik, is a manager of Operations at the Ontario Brain Institute, though she got her academic start in a very different setting. Having grown up in an isolated community in northwestern Ontario, she loved nature and the peaceful environment, but also had an unrelenting love of learning. Following a summer job in addiction research, she landed a position in Ontario government as a telecommunication policy advisor, thus beginning her journey in science policy. Stephanie’s current role involves a multitude of responsibilities, giving her a chance to experience such diverse areas as risk management, performance measures, event funding, and policies and procedures. When asked what advice she would give to someone starting out in the field, her overarching answer was to follow your passion. “View your career as a river”, she said, “follow your interests and different opportunities, sometimes completely unexpected, will pull you along”.

Mehrdad Hariri, the second guest, grew up in Iran during times of unrest and major social changes. From a young age, his mind was plagued with questions about why these things were happening in his country, and what an individual could do to influence the course of far-reaching government decisions. During his subsequent PhD in Montreal, these questions only grew more urgent, if more focused on science: “How are things that I do in the lab related to the policy that government is making?” he would ask. After some research, Mehrdad realized that there was a significant gap between laboratory research and policy making, prompting him to take matters into his own hands. With the help of his university colleagues and after applying for numerous grants, he organized the first Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC), with an impressive 400 attendees. Years later, CSPC has become an annual event, with the most recent one attracting more than 200 speakers and 30 panel sessions, thus providing an organized and previously lacking forum on science policy. And after 9 successful conferences, it shows no signs of slowing down.

Ann Meyer is a manager of Knowledge and Research Exchange at Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR). She currently serves as the Chair of the Promotion and Outreach committee for the Global Organization for Bioinformatics Learning, Education, and Training. Ann began her career with a PhD in Plant Agriculture, where in addition to genetics and molecular biology, she gained the skills necessary to process large amounts of data – a tool that proved instrumental in her current position. As part of the informatics program at OICR, Ann deals with “big data” and converts it into information that physicians can easily use. Since OICR’s focus is on promoting, conducting, and communicating the most up-to-date cancer research, getting this information to doctors in a timely manner is a priority. In addition to bioinformatics, Ann spends a great deal of time on science outreach – organizing events such as high school tours of OICR’s state-of-the-art facilities, and hoping to inspire the next generation of cancer researchers. Her advice is to focus on developing your soft skills in addition to technical knowledge; experiences in addition to research such as volunteering and TAships can prove invaluable in landing as well as excelling in your dream-job.

The last speaker, Matias Casas-Selves, is also part of OICR, where he serves as a Senior Scientist. Hailing from Montevideo, Uruguay, Matias got his PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Colorado. Matias’s current role is in the drug discovery program at OICR, where he gets a chance to influence cancer treatment in one of the most direct ways – by contributing to the development of brand new medications. He offered many useful tips to any graduate student looking to start his or her career; a couple that stood out to me were read outside your field (not only is it good for giving a new perspective, but you never know what could stir up creativity in your own work), learn to code (even if a “wet” scientist! Python is the most common language used in biology), and focus on improving your communication skills (your science is only as good as you can communicate it with others).

As shown by the diverse and well-accomplished guests of last week’s seminar, it really is possible to bridge the gap between science research and government policy; all you need is a passion and a place to start. There are ample opportunities for jump-starting your science policy journey, only some of which are listed below:

 

 

Written by LSCDS Exec Member Lidia Kazakova

Lidia is an MSc student in the department of Cell and Systems Biology. She is passionate about science communication and outreach, and is interested in pursuing a career in writing.