We got in touch with Natasha Christie-Holmes, a graduate of our department, to see what she’s up to now, and to get some feedback on her graduate experience. As always, our alumnus has some interesting stories to tell and important life lessons to share.

Natasha Christie-Holmes, PhD
Natasha Christie-Holmes, PhD
Dr. Kelly MacDonald lab, 2001-2008
Current position: Biosafety Level 3 (BSL3) Facility Manager at the University of Toronto.

Was it difficult making a transition into your current position?
The transition to the position from graduate school wasn’t particularly difficult as I’d been working in the BSL3 lab for a few years doing experiments, so I knew the protocols and safety procedures very well. I didn’t have to obtain any additional training, but I’ve learned a lot more about the specific regulations that oversee work with biologic agents in labs, especially at high containment levels.

What kind of issues do you typically encounter?
Most of the issues I deal with regularly have to do with communication – with users of the facility about specific protocols that need to be followed, between the Faculty overseeing the facility and the users of the facility, and with the regulatory agencies at the federal level that provide the outline for how our facility should operate. The federal government has been in the process of passing new laws and developing new regulations regarding biologic agents for the last 4 years, so there has been a lot of making sure everyone knows what the process is, how our processes are going to have to change, what is newly expected of us, developing new internal policies/protocols etc.

What is an average day like?
An average day for me can consist of highly varied tasks. Everything from mundane basics like cleaning the lab, checking the ventilation system and making sure it’s running within specifications to more complicated tasks like reading new regulations or guidelines, developing responses and recommendations to federal regulators, and reviewing proposals for new research to take place in the facility. Ultimately, as most jobs do, a lot of it comes down to answering a lot of emails. 🙂

What motivated you to be where you are now?
To be honest, the motivation to take this position came from three fronts: it was an easy transition/good timing, it was a position with good benefits as I knew I’d likely be starting a family soon, and it allowed me to stay in the research world with more stability and flexibility than pursuing a post-doc. I strongly believe that researchers need good facilities overseen by individuals who understand not only science but the research process. That motivated me too – the idea that a facility run by a scientist with a good understanding of the regulations would make using the facility easier for other scientists.

How helpful was your immunology degree to getting to where you are now?
Ultimately, I wouldn’t have been working in the high containment lab if I hadn’t been pursuing my immunology PhD, so I’d say it was pretty instrumental in getting the job! I definitely still rely on the things that I learned during graduate school in terms of evaluating the scientific aims of work that’s conducted in the lab and understanding the work. But more so, and I know it’s a played-out cliché to say it, it’s really the non-scientific skills that I developed during graduate school that serve me best: critical thinking, rationalization, communication and confidence. Graduate school taught me a lot about a really specific area of HIV and T cell biology, but it taught me a lot more about myself (see – totally cliché).

What was the most transforming experience of your degree?
It was probably my defense (although I guess that’s just when I realized there had been a transformation). I was very nervous, but once the examiners started asking questions and we all started talking, I realized I was actually really comfortable talking about my research and that I felt really confident in what I was saying. Feeling confident in the face of experts with vastly more experience than I had was miles away from how much I had hated giving my first student seminar.

What was the most enjoyable part of your degree?
Those moments where experiments work, although sometimes few and far between, are sweet. Those conversations with other people in the lab where you think of new stuff to do and are genuinely excited about new possibilities. The most enjoyable parts were when I felt like people were sharing ideas and truly collaborating because they were interested in the science, not the publication.

Your worst day, week, or year
Ugh. Do I have to pick just one? Luckily, I think many things have faded a bit with time. My worst day was probably when we figured out that my cloning experiments weren’t working because of an extra restriction site that wasn’t listed on the plasmid map. I’d been trying to get it to work for over a year. You’d think figuring out the problem would make for a good day, but I just felt stupid for not figuring it out sooner and unlucky that it never showed up on a gel.

The most useful or beneficial things you gained from your experience
Again, probably the “soft skills”. Critical thinking, analysis, communication. Getting through the PhD gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my ability to figure things out.

If you could do it again, would you have done anything differently?
Easy – I would’ve asked for help with some of the technical problems I was having. I figured people would think I wasn’t smart enough to be in graduate school if I couldn’t solve every problem on my own or if I said the words “I don’t know”. Aren’t we all in graduate school because we don’t know stuff? Now I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to say, “I’ve looked at all the factors and I still don’t know what’s going on” – just wish I had learned that lesson a bit more quickly.

If you could change anything about the program, what would it be?
Loaded question – I think there’s just generally some changes in graduate education culture that would be beneficial. Most graduate students figure out pretty quickly that there are too many students for the number of academic positions that are available. Many programs are realizing this and trying to help students figure out what other options are out there, but you’re in a situation where you’re surrounded by academics – it’s hard to see the other career paths when everyone around you has followed that one.

What kept you sane?
Nobody stays sane during grad school! I went from sane to insane at least a couple times. I think venting to my other graduate school friends really helped. It made me realize I wasn’t the only one feeling frustrated or wondering why I was doing this! But also having friends outside of academia helped me keep perspective sometimes. It’s easy to forget that not everyone who is successful and high functioning has an advanced degree when you don’t deal with anyone who has less than a MSc during your day.

Words of wisdom for those in the program, or for those considering graduate school?
Every project is unique and can’t be judged against the other projects in the department, and sometimes not even against other projects in that lab. Comparisons (e.g. “Why can’t mine be that straightforward?”, “How does he get everything to work?”) are just going to drive you crazy and aren’t constructive. If you’re considering graduate school, choose it for the chance to learn new things and ask questions, not for any guarantees of amazing careers in bioscience.

Star Trek or Star Wars?
I grew up on ST:TNG. Dr. Beverly Crusher is probably one of the reasons I pursued science. But if you don’t love the original Star Wars movies, we’re probably not going to get along either.

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Charles Tran

Founding Editor
Charles obtained his BSc in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta and is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. In his spare time, he likes to run, play the guitar, and experiment with recipes from his Gordon Ramsay cookbook.
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