Dr. Geneve Awong conducted her doctoral studies in the lab of Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker at the Sunnybrook Research Institute and graduated in September 2011. Currently, she is the manager of the Centre for Cytometry and Scanning Microscopy (CCSM) at the Sunnybrook Research Institute. We caught up with Geneve to talk about her transition from graduate school to academia to a full-time position.
What kind of research did you conduct during your PhD?
During my doctoral studies, I characterized human T cells generated from human hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) in vitro. To do this, I harvested human HSCs from umbilical cord blood and assessed their stepwise phenotypic development into T cells. I also conducted a functional characterization to see if these T-lineage progenitors that were generated in vitro had the ability to home to a mouse thymus, engraft, and exit the thymus as functional human T cells.
What were your next steps after you defended your PhD?
I decided to pursue postdoctoral studies in the lab of Dr. Gordon Keller. In this lab, my research was aimed at determining the developmental cues necessary for the emergence and maintenance of human hemogenic endothelium, a specialized embryonic cell type that gives rise to human HSCs. The ultimate goal of the lab was to understand and recapitulate the developmental events that lead to the generation of human HSCs in vitro. I chose to join a stem cell lab because I wanted to transition slightly away from T cells and delve into a new field.
How did you obtain your current position?
I work in the same research institute where I conducted my doctoral studies, so I was familiar with the previous manager of the facility and the director of the facility is my former PhD mentor. When the position became available, I interviewed and due to my extensive experience with flow cytometry during my PhD and postdoctoral work, I was able to secure the position. Connections and networking are key to being successful in the job market.
What are some of your responsibilities as manager of the CCSM?
A huge part of my job is dedicated to the training and education of new facility users. I spend a significant portion of my time ensuring that the new users are properly trained in the usage of flow cytometers and microscopes, and that they understand the fundamentals behind the operation of these instruments. Additionally, I spend a lot of time advising students on their experimental set-ups – helping them devise proper controls, design antibody panels, and choose the appropriate immunological markers. I also perform cell sorting and oversee day-to-day operations. In the administrative duties of my role, I oversee the financial aspects of the facility, namely I’m responsible for budgeting, core capital planning and the procurement of new instruments.
How smooth was the transition to your new job from academia? What were some of the challenges you experienced?
Transitioning from the bench to a non-bench related job was not difficult, but the learning curve itself was not as easy as I expected. I was thrust into a new environment where although I had used many of the facility instruments, I had never operated cell sorters myself and had minimal experience with microscopy. Fortunately, I was able to quickly pick up all of these practical skills. Additionally, I had little knowledge regarding the fiscal responsibilities of the position, so I had to work closely with research finance and learn details such as how to create a budget.
Having been both a postdoctoral fellow and now an employee, what would you say are some of the pros and cons of either path?
Being a postdoctoral fellow was very exciting as you’re working in research and you are making impactful discoveries all the while continuously learning. However, fellowships are highly demanding, success is project-dependent, and it felt like a 24/7 job – you are constantly at the mercy and timing of your cells. My current job is much more structured in that aspect, and the pay-scale is higher as well, which is an important consideration when the cost of living and having a family in Toronto is so steep. However, I do consider myself fortunate that I still work at a research institute – this way I’m still involved and will get to witness the next big discovery up-close.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your PhD? Do you have any advice for current PhD students?
One of the biggest things I wish I had done differently is to have spent more time networking, actively seeking guidance on professional development, and being involved with the Immunology graduate community, instead of being so heavily immersed in the lab. I would definitely recommend going to functions, career development events, and even social events in the department. When I was a graduate student, we did not have the GPD course, so it was not very obvious to us the types of opportunities that would be available post-graduation. The reality is that it is not easy securing a job and opportunities are few and far in between, so while time in the lab is important, it’s crucial to also think about what you’ll do next so that you’ll have a better idea of your next step by the end of your PhD.
What are some of the difficulties you encountered during graduate school?
The most difficult part of graduate school is learning how to endure long stretches of failed experiments. It is demoralizing when you’re on a bad streak of experiments, particularly since I put so much pressure on myself to obtain results and to graduate quickly.
What is one of your fondest memories from your PhD?
I remember this day very vividly. It was an experiment attempting to engraft mice with human T cell progenitors. We had no idea if this was going to work, whether the human progenitor T cells would reach the mouse thymus, engraft, or give rise to any functional T cells. It was a late day in the lab and I nervously opened up the first few mice, processed the samples and went to the flow cytometer with my good friend and labmate Ross in tow. What I remember the most is the first few dots appearing on the machine and seeing human T cells on the screen! I was so elated that I ran straight to JC’s office mid-sample (Ross was supervising the machine) to share the exciting news. Ross and I went out for a drink later that night to celebrate. It was definitely the best day of my PhD career.
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