- What has been your career path leading to your current position?
I completed my Hon.B.Sc. in the Toxicology Specialist program at the University of Toronto, and during this time I had the privilege of working in the labs of Drs. John W. Semple, Ulrich Tepass and Dorothea Godt as a fourth-year project student, research assistant and work-study student, respectively. These experiences exposed me to world-class research and helped me decide to pursue a career as a scientist. Following my undergraduate degree, I moved to Kingston, Ontario to complete an M.Sc. (Pharmacology & Toxicology) at Queen’s University under the supervision of Dr. Susan P.C. Cole at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute, where I studied the structure-function relationship of multidrug resistance protein 1 (MRP1), a protein ‘efflux pump’ that causes chemotherapy resistance in certain lung cancers. Importantly, during this period I was highly encouraged by Dr. Cole to pursue my own ideas and research hypotheses, and this has greatly contributed to me becoming a well-rounded and independent researcher. Next, I moved back to Toronto to complete a Ph.D. (Biochemistry) at the University of Toronto, under the supervision of Dr. Christine E. Bear at The Hospital for Sick Children, where I studied the structure-function relationship of another protein, the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR). My thesis research spanned several collaborative projects (10+) and I was fortunate to help elucidate the molecular basis of disease for several rare CFTR mutations, as well as contribute to the development of novel high-throughput, cell-based screening methods to assist in drug discovery and precision medicine for individuals with Cystic Fibrosis. To date, my doctoral work has been published in 12 peer-reviewed articles and one provisional patent application.
- What does your current position at Cyclica, as an application scientist, entail?
At Cyclica, a Toronto-based biotechnology company that uses proprietary computer simulations to model how ‘small molecule’ drugs interact with the human body, my role as an Application Scientist is two-fold. Firstly, as the title suggests, I contribute to the scientific development of our computational products, by working within cross-functional teams (i.e. software developers, bioinformaticians, medicinal chemists) to identify and implement new features, as well as to use our own technologies for internal drug discovery efforts. Further, on a daily basis I interface with existing and potential pharma/biotech clients to gain additional insights into their ‘pain points’, so that Cyclica may better serve their needs via innovation to our products. Secondly, as an Application Scientist I spend a lot of my time focused on Cyclica’s global business development efforts. This means that I am involved with identifying potential clients, negotiating contracts, designing projects and onboarding clients to our Software-as-a-Service platform. In addition, I’ve also become a key contributor to Cyclica’s investor relations, providing technical expertise when interacting with venture capitalists and the like.
- How did your previous work/research experience or things that you have done during your graduate years prepare you for your current job?
My previous research experience has greatly prepared me for my role at Cyclica in many ways. For one, having completed a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto has provided me with additional credibility in the global marketplace as it is a world-renowned educational institution; I’ve witnessed how such credibility has helped us to get our foot in the door and secure meetings for myself and others with high-ranking pharma executives. In addition, having specialized expertise in drug discovery efforts for a rare genetic disease has enabled me to truly understand the needs of our clients (e.g. biochemists, medicinal chemists, pharmacologists, toxicologists), as well as have firsthand knowledge of the advantages and limitations of existing technologies being used for such efforts. In this way, I am strategically positioned to introduce potential clients to Cyclica’s products in such a way that it is complementary to their current R&D initiatives, but which further facilities identification of the mechanism-of-action (or toxicity) of their lead drug candidates; this in turn provides them with essential answers needed to move their drugs into clinical trials. Further, my experience working at The Hospital for Sick Children during my Ph.D. and being a part of interdisciplinary teams (i.e. graduate students, post-docs, professors, physicians) has helped me to collaborate more effectively within highly dynamic teams, both internally at Cyclica and externally via our partners/clients. Taken together, the skills honed during my Ph.D. (e.g. creative problem-solving, written/verbal communication, leadership) have been transferrable to many, if not all aspects of my responsibilities at Cyclica.
- What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job (as an application scientist/working in an early-stage biotech company)?
The most rewarding part of my job at Cyclica includes working with very talented people having diverse and complementary skillsets on a daily basis. It’s really rewarding knowing that we all share a common long-term goal: to have our computational simulations used by pharma companies so that they can discover more effective medicines faster than ever before. Also, the ability to meet with C-level executives on a daily basis is something that is not commonplace in other jobs, and I am very fortunate to have an audience with these individuals so that we may tell them our story and hopefully partner to facilitate drug discovery efforts within their organizations. Accordingly, it has been a privilege meeting with CEOs of pharma/biotech companies because it has really taught me firsthand about their career paths and journeys, as well as their responsibilities, priorities and perspectives on work and life, further enabling me to reflect on my previous career choices and enlightening me on my future decisions to come.
In contrast, the most challenging (yet rewarding) part of my job includes putting my newly learned sales, marketing and negotiation skills into practice. Although I think that most scientists would consider themselves as introverts by nature (myself included), I strongly believe that being able to effectively communicate in simple/layman’s terms what your tech-savvy product does is critically important for a scientist to be successful at an early-stage company. Further, even though I have no formal business training, I am surrounded by a very experienced senior management team who have many years of combined wisdom with respect to business development and sales. By working closely with these individuals on a daily basis, I’ve been able to absorb their wealth of knowledge and begin to put it into practice. This has helped me to further evolve towards a science-literate businessperson, something that is essential to every early-stage life science technology company.
- Do you think having a PhD has helped you in your career? If yes, in what ways?
Absolutely! Firstly, it provides me with some credibility (as mentioned above) when meeting with C-level executives at pharma companies. In addition, I’ve noticed that by having had a relatively productive track-record in terms of publications during my doctoral studies, certain executives are willing to take precious time out of their busy schedules to hear what I have to say. Further, specific technical skills and analytical processes that I’ve learned during my graduate studies at Queen’s and U of T have been largely transferrable and have significantly contributed to my success at Cyclica. By having an overall action-oriented outlook, I’ve been able to leverage my creative problem-solving, written/verbal communication and leadership capabilities so that Cyclica is set us for success in terms of global expansion opportunities and comprehensive integration of our products into existing pharma R&D pipelines.
6. How do you imagine your career progressing in the immediate and distant future?
In the immediate future I see myself taking on more of a business-oriented role at Cyclica, leveraging my science training as more of a ‘language’ than day-to-day action items. This will help me to further develop my business skillset on the job (mainly via mentorship from Cyclica’s management team) rather than by pursuing another advanced degree (i.e. a course-based or case study-based MBA). In terms of the distant future, I imagine that my career will progress towards more of a senior leadership role in a larger therapeutics discovery company within Canada. Although my technical expertise via my graduate studies, as well as my ‘real world’ experience at Cyclica has been mainly in small molecule drug discovery, over the past few years (especially during the last year of my Ph.D.) I’ve become very interested in leveraging the power of antisense oligonucleotides and CRISPR-based technologies to create treatments for certain rare and orphan diseases. Accordingly, I can foresee myself using my scientific know-how, in combination with my newly developed business-oriented perspective, to lead the drug discovery unit of a pharma/biotech company so that innovative medicines may be developed and commercialized at a faster pace than ever before.
- Three pieces of advice which you would like to give to graduate students.
Three key pieces of advice for current graduate students include:
- Don’t be afraid to leverage your network of peers/professors/mentors to advance your career. For example, try to determine where you want to be in 2-3 years from now, and seek out people in those roles via your professional network (e.g. LinkedIn) to arrange for an informational interview; this would really help you to understand the day-to-day activities in that role to further assess whether you’d like to make a career out of it.
- Take advantage of the many entrepreneurial opportunities that U of T provides. Nowadays, there are so many ways to pitch your brilliant/crazy ideas to gain a small amount of seed funding to launch your startup (e.g. via campus-linked accelerators). Additionally, it would help to seek out like-minded individuals with diverse skillsets that share a common passion and vision to join you on your startup journey.
- Understand that everything you do is a part of your personal brand. One of the most important lessons I learned towards the end of my Ph.D. studies which was facilitated by Dr. Nana Lee (Director and Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream of Graduate Professional Development in the departments of Biochemistry and Immunology at U of T), was that it is very important to consistently market yourself with professionalism, creativity, high-quality, and punctuality in all aspects of your interactions with everyone you meet. This approach will help you to create a foundation of respect and trust from your colleagues, which will inevitably assist you with your career development and subsequently enable many future successes. Remember, we truly live in a global society.