I like the big picture. I like thinking beyond a particular cancer or my specific organization and looking at cancer research as a whole … including globally, to understand the initiatives and research trends, the emerging science, and where research and policy intersect.

If you’ve ever wanted to move beyond your narrow focus at the bench and try to connect the many nodes of research, government policy, and public interest related to disease, then you might be well suited to work for a charitable organization like the Canadian Cancer Society. In this issue of IMMpress Magazine, we had the chance to sit down with Christine Williams, a Department of Immunology alumnus, to discuss her graduate experience and current position as the Vice-President of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society.

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Christine Williams, PhD, Vice-President of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society.

Having spent just under six years on her thesis titled “DNA Damage Checkpoints in the Development of Normal and Neoplastic Lymphocytes”, Christine Williams graduated with her PhD in 1999 as one of the first doctoral students to be supervised by Jayne Danska and Cynthia Guidos. After a productive but brief post-doctoral fellowship in the same research lab, Williams moved along the academic track to work with Katia Georgopoulos at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Another highly productive five and a half years left her at a crossroads – to continue along the professorship track or choose a different path outside academia. I had the opportunity to ask Williams whether she felt that she had finished her postdoctoral research at that point, and felt ready to move on. Her response was a familiar, “one never really finishes a postdoc.” Around the time that her husband had the opportunity to relocate to Toronto, the National Cancer Institute of Canada (precursor to the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute) was hiring and Williams, after consulting with her fellowship supervisor, seized the prestigious opportunity.

Charitable organizations like the Canadian Cancer Society make up a large portion of research funding in Canada. The Society was founded in 1938 by concerned Canadians who held fundraising events called ‘daffodil teas’, and is now the largest charitable funder of cancer research in Canada. The Society has a very broad mission to support the breadth of cancer research, instigate and promote health policy changes and advocacy efforts, and provide cancer information, peer support, and other patient-focused and volunteer-driven efforts. As the VP of Research at the Canadian Cancer Society, part of Williams’ role is to connect the many dots of research in the field of cancer and try to synthesize that information for the public, government, and partner organizations. As she says, “I live in an environment of emerging ideas … and focus on using evidence to make good strategic decisions and investments that will have the greatest impact on cancer.” The role has broad responsibilities, including the oversight of policy positions and information development, strategic oversight and evaluation of the research portfolio, and educating both internally and externally on the benefits of medical research. I asked Williams whether her arguably administrative position still leaves her connected to the scientific community to which she replied that it does, but in a much wider way. She still attends conferences and tries to stay connected to the science, but on a much thinner and broader slice, drawing not only from immunology and biomedical research but also from topics such as prevention studies and quality of life research.

Every year, as tight government budgets move away from funding basic medical research, non-government and charitable organizations begin to fill more and more of that gap. Organizations such as Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust comprise over 60% of total funding in the United Kingdom. Although Canadian charities are nowhere near that level, the charitable impact of these non-government organizations (NGOs) on research can be tremendous. As Williams said in her interview, the advantage of NGOs is that they are nimble.

NGOs, which rely on public and private donations, must be able to adjust to the will of their donors and changes in the research funding environment. “We are directly reflecting what the public values,” says Williams. For example, this mandate has resulted in a strategic shift to increased funding for prevention research through new grant programs overseen by the Institute’s Advisory Council on Research.

During her PhD, Williams never imagined that she would end up working for a non-government organization. She followed the path that was available but kept her options open. For her, this meant volunteering yearly at Camp Oochigeas to gain a connection to the patients affected by the cancers she was studying. Her advice to any PhD student is to take the time to explore activities that interest you even (or especially) if they are not related to your day job. Williams says, “just because something doesn’t seem likely to have a huge impact on your career doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue it. Like research, rewarding careers often involve serendipity and following unpredictable paths.”

Still, from the interview it was clear that leaving the bench was a difficult decision for Williams. She vividly remembers the tough, but fortunately short, adjustment period. The eventual decision to leave academia came down to series of important life choices, one of which was not to pursue medical school after completing her PhD. Another deciding factor was the gradual realization that she lacked the intuition and drive to excel at a focused research career.

Like many of us, the PhD was a long experience for Williams filled with bouts of self-doubt and a lack of confidence, as well as periods of great accomplishment. Having passed the hump, she highly values her time spent at the University of Toronto. To this day, she credits her two PhD mentors with imbuing in her a sense of precision, in writing and in language, and for nurturing her love of science. Having the benefit of retrospection, Williams advises students not to ignore when something is going in a wrong or unanticipated direction during a project. It is common for all of us to chase dead ends, but being a good scientist is about having the intuition to change directions when it’s required.

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Yuriy Baglaenko

Founding Editor
Yuriy is a 4th year PhD student studying the suppression of autoimmunity at the University of Toronto. He is an avid musician with an at-home amateur recording studio and a mediocre intramural volleyball player.
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