Dr. Luca Pisterzi is the Program Manager at the Toronto Dementia Research Alliance, a new paradigm for collaborative research working to create an effective platform for consistent collection and interpretation of clinical data across member institutions. He received his PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Toronto, before launching his career in program/project management at various organizations.
- Please describe how you launched your career path.
During my undergraduate degree in Toxicology at the University of Toronto, I took a project course with a health economist at Sunnybrook. For my project, I helped evaluate how patient care was being affected by the funding cuts to nursing at the time. After the completion of my PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences, I reached out to this previous supervisor because I thoroughly enjoyed the work I did with her. She offered me a post-doctoral fellowship opportunity and in this position, I interacted with caregivers of dementia patients and learned about consulting and research ethics. I also connected with an old colleague who was working at the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI); leveraging my experience in communications, data sharing and ethics, I was able to land a Program Lead position in Informatics & Analytic at OBI. In my role as the Program Lead at OBI, I frequently collaborated with individuals from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and maintained a positive relationship with them. Given my history with ICES, I reached out to them when I was looking for a change of scenery and got my next job as a Project Manager in the Data Partnerships and Development Department with them. The take-home message is, you never know where you will end up and maintaining positive relationships with colleagues and collaborators can open doors for you.
- What does your role, as a Program Manager portfolio at Toronto Dementia Research Alliance, entail?
Broadly speaking, I manage collaboration among the coordinating centres: Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, Toronto Western Hospital (UHN), Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, St. Michael’s Hospital and Baycrest Health Sciences – each of these clinical sites have cognitive and/or behavioural neurology clinics. This involves facilitating effective and tailored communication, preparing appropriate documents for meetings, and overseeing clinical studies and the fellowship program. I provide support for my staff in building a positive relationship with various stakeholders and growing the profile of Toronto Dementia Research Alliance. We organize meetings among our clinical research core members every 2-3 months, which provides a platform for our investigators to propose new studies and multi-site trials. My role also entails interacting with the Planning and Advisory Committee and the Executive Committee, consisting of key decision makers such as Presidents, Vice Presidents of Research and Deans at the various coordinating centres.
- What skills are necessary to be successful as a Program Manager?
As a Program Manager, you need to communicate effectively, and keep the overall goals of the program squarely in mind. This includes keeping an eye on progress, prioritizing tasks and making decisions on how, when and what to communicate to stakeholders. The nature of your work is collegial and collaborative, so you need to build genuine relationships with those around you and learn how to understand different perspectives for a given issue. Time management is also a key skill to have since you are always working on multiple tasks at once.
- What are the most rewarding/challenging/unexpected aspects of your position?
The most rewarding part of my job is using critical thinking to solve problems for my staff and stakeholders while continuously learning about new things. I work in a highly dynamic environment with incredibly talented individuals that are advancing research in dementia. Naturally, the challenge is to manage my time well and prioritize tasks to meet deadlines. I would say the most unexpected aspect of my job is just the shear frequency of issues and challenges that can arise from managing a study – logistically, legally and ethically.
- What are things that a graduate student should be doing now if they want to be market-ready?
Get involved and meet people. You will learn so much by simply talking to people outside of your own bubble. People are generally willing to meet with you and answer questions as long as you come prepared and focused. Also, master the art of gentle persistence. Everyone is busy – don’t give up just because someone does not reply to your message immediately.
- What are the types of entry-level positions that students should aim for to get experience necessary for your kind of career/company?
The most “typical” entry-level position would be a research coordinator, where you would be involved in data collection and have some oversight on the project, supporting the project or program manager. While you should not be discouraged from applying for seemingly more senior positions such as a program management, it helps to learn things along the way. There are some things that you can learn on the job, and other things you can’t. My philosophy is to find someone that is a good fit, and that would be able to learn where there are gaps in skill sets. As long as you’ve developed the relevant soft skills during your graduate studies, I don’t see why you would have to limit yourself to “entry-level” positions when looking for a job in this field, but it is also a helpful experience to climb up the ladder.
- How do you imagine Toronto Dementia Research Alliance progressing in the future?
Our vision is to see a world without dementia, which we approach by embedding research into clinical care. In our Dementia Clinical Research Database, patients are asked to share a detailed health history and cognitive assessment that are a part of routine clinical care, and whether they would like to be contacted to take part in future research studies. This helps us better understand our patients, and to better identify participant for studies that will help us make breakthrough discoveries in dementia.