Dr. Gary Chao completed his PhD in 2014 in the laboratory of Dr. Philippe Poussier, where he investigated the genetic determinants of type 1 diabetes. Leveraging his experience in multidisciplinary projects and his own personal connections, he landed his current job as a Project Manager for the GEMINI (Generational Differences in Environmental Exposures caused by Migration: Impact on Incidence of Inflammatory Disease) Study. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Gary and discussing the path that led to where he is today.

Gary’s first ever exposure to research was during his last year of high school, when he worked with conservation biologists as part of a federal government program. There, he engaged in field-work to study a plant called “broom”, an invasive species at a national park in British Columbia. His first hands-on experience with laboratory work came from a work-study term during his undergraduate years at the University of Toronto in the Department of Zoology (now called Cell & Systems Biology). Gary credits the university’s research-intensive environment for seeding his interest in research.

I asked Gary to reflect on his PhD years (or, as he would say, “challenged” him to recall things from a long time ago), and for him, the most memorable part of graduate studies was “the collegiality at Sunnybrook”. He truly enjoyed the open lab concept at Sunnybrook that allowed him to mingle with everyone and made the environment very familial. He still keeps in touch with a lot of these friends and colleagues, and emphasized the importance of maintaining these relationships. His biggest advice to current students is to “know your colleagues and be nice to them… after all, they are the basis of your own network.”

The collaborative nature of Gary’s PhD work allowed him to interact with people from diverse backgrounds; Gary’s project was nested within a larger, multidisciplinary study involving biostatisticians, ethics officers and notably, a project manager. Nearing the end of his PhD years, Gary realized his passion for project management and reached out to his project manager for informational interviews and job application feedback. He is also appreciative and thankful to Dr. Poussier for being a supervisor who encouraged his students to pursue their own passions, irrespective of whether that meant pursuing academia or not. Furthermore, it was his relationship with Dr. Poussier that connected him to his current position; Dr. Poussier was on the team grant for GEMINI, and the team was actively looking for someone to launch the study. With his previous experience in multidisciplinary projects, Gary was deemed the best candidate for the position.

Q: To what immune cell do you most relate? A: Macrophage. I aspire to be someone with a never-ending need to sample or learn new things.

GEMINI, funded by Connaught Global Challenge, aims to understand how the microbiome is altered in response to global migration and how this, in return, affects chronic disease. In order to feel as prepared as possible for the new job, Gary obtained his Project Management Professional certificate through the School of Continuing Studies. He noted that the biggest take-away from the course was learning the language used in this field. Despite preparing himself for the job through this course, the transition from student to professional was coupled with a steep learning curve. One major change rested on the fact that professional presentation is integral for frequent interaction with the lay public. The way a project manager is perceived by others (and the expectations that follow based on the change in position) is drastically different from the position of a graduate student. Additionally, the project manager is often the initial point-of-contact for study participants and in many ways is the face of the study. This meant that Gary had to quickly adopt professionalism in the way he dresses and communicates. Another major change that accompanied his new role was in the realm of time management. While as a student, one plans experiments for a given day or maybe a week, a project manager needs to plan weeks and months ahead of time. This milestone approach requires him to dedicate significant blocks of time weeks in advance to work on major deliverables such as budgets and reports. Being able to zoom out on the calendar from a “days-view” to “months-view” is essential in making sure enough time is allocated for major tasks.

Q: If not science, what would you have done? A: Take on the family business, I suppose.

As a project manager, Gary identified the “art” of managing people as being more challenging than the scientific aspect of his job. Gary is not alone in facing these sets of challenges. Indeed, it’s precisely these commonly faced issues that have prompted the existence of a stakeholder register. This is a project management document that contains information about the project’s stakeholders – people or groups that have any involvement or interest in the project – to better organize himself in managing a large number of people. This is a confidential document that Gary uses to note things down; these notes and reminders can be as seemingly-miniscule points as whether a stakeholder prefers to meet in the afternoon or not to deadlines for major deliverables pertinent to a stakeholder. As these stakeholders can range from principal investigators and sponsors to graduate students, Gary can use his stakeholder register to prioritize when and how to meet the expectations of everyone involved in the project.

To put it simply, Gary summarized his responsibility to be “managing innovation”. His main goals are to stay more realistic than idealistic for scientific studies and to create tangible milestones for the team while putting an emphasis on knowledge translation and the organizational structure of the study. Prioritization and time management are key skills required for project management, and Gary thanks Dr. Nana Lee for introducing him to Stephen Covery’s Time Management Matrix. This is a matrix whereby one places all responsibilities into one of four quadrants: urgent and important, not urgent but important, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important. This tool has proven very beneficial in managing the many responsibilities of his position.

So what exactly does a typical day look like for Gary? A considerable amount of time is spent corresponding with various stakeholders via e-mail, but this is essentially the only constant aspect of his job. He finds himself working on new projects all the time, thus he commented that project management is not for people who favour stability as it entails constantly venturing into new avenues. For instance, recently, he shifted his focus to devising business plans for the commercialization of a multiple sclerosis treatment. This, of course, requires much research on a completely new field but that is what makes his work most enjoyable.

In addition to keeping in touch with your colleagues, Gary’s advice was to create your own positions: convince people you know what they need and how you can get that done.

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Yoojin Choi

Yoojin is a graduate student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto.

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