On Thursday, April 7th, the Department of Immunology’s Graduate Professional Development course hosted its annual Networking Event. University of Toronto alumni from all over North America came to Toronto to speak about their graduate experiences, their career paths, and their general life advice. IMMpress Magazine sat in on the afternoon’s panel discussions and was able to get the scoop from some of this year’s attendees.
Dr. Leanne Wybenga-Groot
Dr. Leanne Wybenga-Groot is the Drug Discovery Project Manager at the SPARC BioCentre, a division of the SickKids Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning (PGCRL) that works towards small molecule drug development by using high-throughput screening to test existing compounds against novel targets or assays. According to Wybenga-Groot, she “fell into” this role after spending many years building up her expertise in structural biochemistry, completing a Masters degree in X-ray crystallography at McMaster University and a PhD solving protein kinase structures at the University of Toronto. Following her interest in structure-based drug design, Wybenga-Groot began a job at the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) in 2005, but quickly realized that she “missed hypothesis-driven research and being able to really dig into a project.” Knowing that she wanted to stay in academia, Wybenga-Groot completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Jane McGlade at SickKids following maternity leave for her third and fourth children. During her mat leave, she lectured at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus to garner valuable teaching experience. Although this time away from the bench made it difficult to develop a competitive CV for academic positions, the extensive network she had cultivated in Toronto meant that Wybenga-Groot was directly approached about her current role at SPARC: “I had either worked for or collaborated with everyone involved in the hiring process and … had developed a reputation over the years to not only develop ideas, but actually execute on those ideas.”
Dr. Ronan Rogers
Dr. Ronan Rogers “knew pretty early on … that [he] didn’t want to go into academia,” aiming instead for a career in Pharma. Nonetheless, he signed on for a PhD in opthamology and neurology at UofT following his Masters in Biology at Waterloo, having seen through his work with industry that many higher ups in Pharma had doctoral degrees. During his PhD, Rogers cultivated his network in science and industry while working part-time as a caterer and photographer, and as with Wybenga-Groot, it was ultimately through this diverse network that he landed his first job as a project coordinator for drug development at a small biotech company. “When I was part of a small company, I was able to wear many hats,” Rogers recounts. “[I could] essentially do every role possible in a company that you … would not have the opportunity to do in a large company in that period of time.” After 3 years in drug development, Rogers returned to neurology, joining BioGen as a Medical Science Liaison for drugs used to treat multiple sclerosis. In his current position, Rogers acts as scientific expert and communicator, providing context for how the drugs work and how they have been tested. However, his job also involves facilitating collaborations between MS researchers in different countries to “build a scientific story.” As Rogers sees it, having the broad background he does “enables you to pull things together, to really connect people, to know the science, [and] to speak confidently about it.”
Mr. Paul Kelly
For Mr. Paul Kelly, the path to his career began at an event very similar to this one. While doing an undergraduate degree in Kinesiology at the University of Illinois, he discovered biomedical illustration at a professional development workshop and began taking classes in art and life drawing, even taking a year off following graduation to expand his portfolio. The extra effort paid off, landing him a spot at the competitive Biomedical Communications (BMC) program at UofT. The highlight of this program for Kelly was the surgical illustration course, during which he produced the portfolio piece that paved the way for his current work. As a member of the Association of Medical Illustrators, Kelly got a job straight out of the program doing textbook illustration. While he realized that the project was not exactly what he wanted to pursue, Kelly mantains that it was a great experience, teaching him the merits of “working quickly and efficiently, staying organized, and being able to pass off your files and assets to another person.” Returning to Toronto and to his BMC roots in surgery, Kelly took up his current job with the Toronto Video Atlas at Toronto General Hospital, which involves using 3D animation and video editing to translate lengthly surgical procedures into 10 minute videos that are accessible to physicians and patients. Kelly and his team have a hectic production schedule, releasing one video a month for the past 15 months, but the results are well worth it, as the quality of their work has garnered many freelance opportunities: “Even if you have a market that you think might be limited, if you come with the skills, many people are going to be willing to pay.”
Q&A Panel Discussion
- What core competency skills did you develop in graduate school?
- Leanne – Organization, time management, and keeping everyone’s project straight.
- Ronan – Communication and teamworking. If you can work well with people, it really, really helps.
- Paul – Finding role models who handle conflicts of interest well. Be solution-focused.
- What skills needed for your current job were not developed in graduate school?
- Leanne – Leadership courses in personality and self-awareness. If you understand what motivates the people you work with, you can make everybody on the team feel valued.
- Ronan – Knowing your audience, how you’re speaking to them and what you’re delivering.
- Paul – Understanding the hierarchy that’s in place. In certain jobs, that hierarchy is very important.
- How do you decide what you want to do?
- Leanne – Have an awareness of what you want and be selective in what you apply for.
- Ronan – Meet with people in your network about what they do and hone it down to what uses your best attributes.
- Paul – If you don’t know what you want to do, you can open yourself up to what the market needs.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the above attendees for their input and to Dr. Nana Lee for organizing this event.