Dr. Eric Gracey completed his PhD at the University of Toronto’s Department of Immunology under the supervision of Dr. Rob Inman in 2016. Dr. Gracey is highly passionate about his research in the field of arthritis and is currently pursuing a post-doctoral position in the lab of Dr. Dirk Elewaut in Belgium.
Can you provide us with some background on your early research and any other experiences that inspired you to pursue research?
Like many others, mine was a pretty typical story of falling into science: I was good at science and math at school, so I pursued it during my undergraduate studies in New Zealand. I found the immunology lectures super interesting. I read Janeway’s Immunobiology from cover to cover on a family holiday to New Caledonia (I know!). I found autoimmunity particularly interesting as some of my family members are affected by arthritis, so I found myself doing a thesis project in a lab studying gout in New Zealand. Milk consumption has been connected to protection against gout in epidemiologic studies, so my supervisor, Dr. Nicola Dalbeth, was interested in figuring out what milk components might be protective. Coincidentally, New Zealand is one of the biggest milk producers in the world, and the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, have very high prevalence of gout. Within a year I was able to find milk fractions that were anti-inflammatory in models of gout inflammation both in vitro and in vivo. The following, year the milk fractions I identified were tested in clinical trials. To see scientific findings translate to the clinic in such a short period had me hooked. Dr. Dalbeth knew a clinical fellow who was working with Dr. Rob Inman, so she suggested I get in touch with Rob when I decided to do a PhD in Canada….and now I have a career in research!
I suppose I should also add that suits and desk jobs have never interested me.
What kind of research did you conduct during your PhD degree with Dr. Robert Inman?
I conducted quite a diverse range of research. I started off researching host-microbe interactions in mice, specifically Chlamydia and macrophages. I had a mid-PhD crisis and decided to switch track entirely to leverage Rob’s arthritis (ankylosing spondylitis) cohort, one of the largest in North America where I immunophenotyped T cells from patients. I attended a lot of clinical conferences, at one of which I met a Boston biotech company who had a novel JAK inhibitor. During the end of my PhD I set up a very productive collaboration with them to test their inhibitor in animal models of ankylosing spondylitis and with patient-derived cells, work which I finished during my “mini-postdoc” in Toronto.
What were your next steps after the completion of your PhD degree? how did you obtain your current position as a post-doctoral fellow in Belgium?
I stayed in Toronto for a couple of years after finishing my PhD to work on the pharmaceutical collaboration. Additionally, another strong reason to stay in Canada a bit longer was to start a family as I always thought I’d head down to industry in the US after my PhD. My wife and I did not want to go through pregnancy in the US healthcare system! I actually did receive offers in the US for industrial postdocs. I wasn’t really considering academic postdocs, as in North America, I don’t really see them as being compatible with having a family due to the low pay and long hours. I knew my current supervisor, Dr. Dirk Elewaut, through an arthritis conference. It was an honor to have him as my external for my PhD defense. Every time we met he kept asking me if I wanted to join his team. I finally agreed to interview in Belgium and was actually blown away by his group, and the research environment at the Flanders’ Institute for Biotechnology (VIB). It was also a huge incentive that in Europe they really value their PhD students and postdocs – we are treated as employees, with benefits and a pension plan. In fact, the salaries are so competitive, that many PhD students in my lab left veterinary medicine to become scientists!
What kind of research are you currently conducting?
I’m managing a couple of industry collaborations where I’m testing novel therapeutics in our animal models, but my pet project is understanding how tendon fibroblasts respond to mechanical stress, and how they interact with immune cells to initiate arthritis. This will mostly involve mixing mouse models of arthritis with altered mechanical stress such as treadmill running or tail suspension of mice. It will also involve examining patient-derived tissue from Dirk’s arthritis clinic. He can get lung, gut, joint and blood tissue, sometimes from a single visit!
What are your future plans after completion of your post-doc?
I’ll definitely be staying in research as I am hooked. Getting a position in academic research in Europe is as tough as in North America due to few positions being available relative to the number of postdocs. I’ll likely transition to industry as a scientist, unless there’s an offer I can’t resist back in Toronto!
I am also aware that you have served in the New Zealand military, which is very different from research! Was this prior to your graduate studies? If so, what made you want to pursue science instead?
The military is almost the antithesis of research! I joined the infantry reserves during my undergraduate studies. I was a private so I just had to follow orders and push myself physically. It was a great balance to my studies and really helped me to push myself mentally in science. My service was always just a hobby – I was a weekend warrior – science was and will be my day job. While I did not re-enlist in the military in Canada during my PhD, I did continue to push myself physically. First with marathons, then ultramarathons coupled with a healthy dose of canoe and hiking trips. I still run a bit, but my physical challenges now revolve around carrying my son and pulling nightshifts.
What is one of your fondest memories from your PhD?
Good question! While the experiments were rewarding (when they worked), my fondest memories would have to be time spent with friends in the department. Many late nights at the IGSA pubs, staying up all night at the retreat, tons of social activities like climbing the CN tower, picnics on Toronto Island etc. Sorry, too hard to pick a single one!
No, wait. Getting Mike Ratcliffe to shave his beard for Movember was amazing. Somehow his wife found out we had a target to reach and donated a lot of money to see him clean shaven for the first time in 20 years. He actually looked like Roger Moore without his scholarly beard!
What are some of the difficulties you encountered during graduate school?
I would say they were common struggles for the PhD. Experiments not working in the first year. The desire for help in the second year before realizing you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. An existential crisis in the third year. The first manuscript rejection. As one of my immunology friends told me, you have to have unending optimism to make it in science.
Is there anything that you would have done differently during your PhD? Do you have any advice for current graduate students?
Of course, in hindsight it is easy to say I would have changed my focus or avoided a certain line of research, but had I have made such changes, I’m sure other problems would have arisen.
My advice: really get to know the department through IGSA. Students and faculty will remain your friends and mentors lifelong, and will form a valuable network as you go your separate ways.