We had a chance to catch up with Jason Fine, who graduated with a PhD from the Department in 2012. Jason completed his PhD under the supervision of Dr. James Carlyle. He now holds a post-doctoral position with Health Canada in Ottawa.
When did you graduate from the department, and what are you up to now?
I defended on Friday July 13, 2012. Although some people consider Friday the 13th to be unlucky, I didn’t have time to consider it because it was over in a flash. It’s amazing to think of all the work that culminated into that one moment. I am currently entering my second year as a research fellow at Health Canada in Ottawa. I am part of the Toxicology Research Division (TRD), within the Food Directorate (FD) of the Health Products and Food Branch (HPFB). The one thing I learned very quickly in my new role is that there are many divisions, and even more acronyms!
Was it difficult transitioning to your new position?
Overall, I found the transition quite smooth. I had previous experience in toxicology as an FSWEP (Federal Student Work Exchange Program) student during the summers of my undergraduate degree, and although the project I was hired for had nothing to do with NK cells, my background in immunology concepts and techniques was definitely to my benefit.
What do you like best about your current job?
I enjoy the responsibility! As one of the few immunology specialists in the entire group, I am counted on to provide feedback and make recommendations with respect to project design, readout, and interpretation with both scientists and evaluators. It also puts me in a position to expand my teaching skills since many of the toxicologists are only beginning to expand their knowledge of the immune system.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on?
My current project involves using a mouse model that simulates food allergy. My role is to develop the model from the ground up and use it to test numerous high-priority food borne chemicals that are of concern to Health Canada, in order to identify high-risk immunomodulatory chemicals to support risk assessment. In addition, I get to collaborate with other scientists within the group. A publication that I contributed to was accepted last week!
Has your lifestyle changed significantly since becoming a post-doc? What is an average day like for you?
My lifestyle hasn’t changed too much, but I do find that my hours are more regular. I still work weekends, although not as often as grad school. Overall, I do find that there is a change in flexibility. In graduate school time is much more flexible, and it’s something I said to myself and others repeatedly during my degree.
What influenced your choice to do a post-doc with the government?
Short answer: Interest and timing. Long answer: I enjoyed my previous summer work in the government and there was a neighbouring lab looking for an immunotoxicologist. I had the “immune”- part, and a bit of the toxicologist part, so it really was a perfect fit.
If you had one piece of advice for yourself for when you started graduate school, what would it be?
Network! Take part in as many extracurricular activities (of interest to you) as you can, and connect with people in and around the areas that you are interested in working in. Grad school is not just about what you do in the lab (although it may seem like that some days…).
Plus, networking skills are some of the most important skills that you will find you need when you graduate to land yourself that amazing job! It’s not just about introducing yourself once and expecting someone to remember you. It’s about asking questions, going to numerous seminars, and following up. Along the way you’ll likely make some friends too! As a matter of fact, the job you may want might not even be advertised, so without networking, you wouldn’t know it exists. If you have 1,000 equally qualified applicants for a position, ask yourself: “how will/can I stand out in the pile?”
You may think that it’s hard to balance lab life while practicing post-degree skill sets, and you’re right. But, as cliché as it sounds, the more of a routine it becomes, the easier it will be.
What were some of the difficulties/challenges you faced while in grad school? How did you overcome them?
I was quite naïve when I came to Toronto since I only had one half credit course of experience in immunology during the 4th year of my undergraduate degree at Carleton University. There was definitely a steep learning curve compared to the immunology specialists who just came out of undergrad at U of T. I still remember my first Recent Advances in Immunology student presentation in which I kept using the wrong terminology while describing a flow plot! As a result I was interrupted and corrected what seemed like every 10 seconds or so by the professor in attendance. It’s actually kind of funny thinking back to the moment I saw a dot on a flow plot and wondered what it was.
What was your worst day/week/year and best day/week/year?
Where do I begin?! Coming from a lab that was starting up essentially as I arrived, the uncertainty of whether or not you will still be able to conduct research in the lab was unnerving. But to be more specific, I found my rotations to be very discouraging based on the sequence of events and as a result I struggled to find my footing and a comfort zone. I ended up doing 5 rotations in 3 months due to unique circumstances and was starting to question why I moved to Toronto to start the program. But it was for the best, since in the end I found the perfect fit in the Carlyle lab and have no regrets. To all those doing rotations, I wouldn’t discourage students in choosing this avenue. Rotations allow you to learn a great deal about the science going in various labs in the department in a very short period of time. You will also meet other students very quickly. Sometimes this can be hard when labs are spread out all across Toronto. Lastly, for the PhDs, considering you will be staying put for more than a couple years it’s important that you find the right fit.
In terms of the best days/weeks/years, there are too many to list, but some of the highlights: receiving the Miller Award was an honour, getting my first paper published was exciting, and my time as co-president of IGSA was an amazing experience.
What kept you sane?
Well first and foremost, my wife. Well, I guess girlfriend when I started the program! I also met some amazing people in the department and I had a great group in the lab – a perfect balance of nerdiness and non-science related fun! So, really, to keep sane, have an outlet that you enjoy! Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention hockey, recreational and professional! GO Sens!!!!
Star Trek or Star Wars?
I’ve actually never seen an episode of Star Trek… so, Star Wars. Plus the Ewoks seem like a resourceful bunch.
For interested students, Jason will be presenting at a Career Development Session on March 6th, where the discussion will focus on ‘getting the right post-doc’. You can find out more about what it’s like to work for the government and get to know him a bit better!
–compiled by Leesa Pennell
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