Dr. Patrycja Thompson completed her PhD in 2015 from Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker’s laboratory, where she investigated the role of Notch signaling in T cell development and commitment. Now the manager of technology sourcing and evaluation at the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), Patrycja shares with us her journey from working on veterinary immunology at the Ontario Veterinary College to analyzing the patentability of new cell and gene therapies.
With her mother running a clinical laboratory in a hospital in Poland and her father an economist-turned-schoolteacher, Patrycja has always had a propensity for asking questions. Bringing with her this innate curiosity when the family moved to Canada, she reminisces on her first-year undergraduate microbiology class, where they were learning about the immune system for the first time and where her passion for immunology first kindled. “I like the idea of this evolutionary tug of war between microorganisms and us, and how things have evolved to adapt and gain survival. “That’s probably also why I started in microbiology, because I thought microbes were really “smart” and more likely to win the war in the end,” she muses.
Following this newfound passion, Patrycja landed her first job at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, where she developed and optimized ELISA-based diagnostic immunological assays. She ended up completing a Master’s in Pathobiology there as well, designing MHC tetramers to isolate T cell clones that were dictating susceptibility of chickens to an avian immunodeficiency virus. “I learned a lot about MHC and T cell biology, regardless of animal model, she explains, “Knowing this, you could potentially develop either better screening assays or vaccines to protect susceptible chickens.” Continuing on this path, Patrycja worked at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatoon for a year, developing vaccines for farm animals, such as those against the bovine herpes virus, before deciding it was time to go back to school for her PhD.
“I remember Drs. Tania Watts and Eleanor Fish interviewing me on the phone, and how nice the whole experience was” she laughs. Thompson joined JC’s laboratory, where she generated “this extremely complicated mouse model” and uncovered a role for Notch signaling in dictating T cell specification in the bone marrow niche – a discovery of Nature Immunology caliber that upturned the dogma on thymic T cell commitment. After a brief stint in Philadelphia as a post-doctoral fellow, Patrycja decided to return to Toronto with her family. Deciding to move on from academia, she landed a position at the Strategic Research Programs at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, followed by her current job as the manager of technology sourcing and evaluation at the CCRM. She credits her degree in immunology and strong scientific background in helping her towards this new career path. Thus began her exposure to the world of big institutional grants, patents, and commercialization.
Each university is typically associated with a Technology Transfer Office (TTO), which helps academic researchers who are looking to commercialize their discovery can go to initiate the patent application process. CCRM takes this to the next step by bringing the product in-house for further development, thus helping the researcher offset the high production cost of commercialization. Additionally, CCRM also helps the researcher connect with industry partners interested in subsidizing the product. That’s where Patrycja comes in. Applying her strong scientific background, knowledge of patents and market indications, and awareness of the research being done in Toronto, Patrycja’s primary goal is to be an advocate for both the academic researcher and industry partner and to find new academic technologies with the potential to become therapies. This is typically achieved by scouting for new discoveries, scouring through the latest literature, and developing close relationships with researchers and TTOs to encourage them to license their technologies to CCRM. Given the push towards more translational research in academia, Patrycja explains that CCRM can help researchers get their discoveries to the clinic to generate therapies much faster.
While academic researchers may struggle with funding, grant writing, and publications, Patrycja’s challenges at her work are more interpersonal. “My biggest challenge definitely is engaging some of the academics,” she says, “and I think it’s because a lot of academics think, ‘I don’t have time to be involved in this company. I have my academic position and that has taken up more than enough of my time.’ To explain that their involvement doesn’t have to be as a CEO of a company by any means – it could be acting as a Scientific Advisor – is definitely a challenge.” Persuading CCRM’s partners to consider them as an industry receptacle of their technology and finding external investment to push the company forward can also be challenging, adds Patrycja.
At the end of the day, it’s about fostering relationships with clients and helping scientists take their research beyond the lab. As such, for Patrycja, each workday comes with a lot of variation. There are regular weekly meetings, such as operations meetings and progress updates on company ideation or currently incubated companies within CCRM. Other days may involve a patent and market analysis on a new technology or providing input on a start-up requesting financial investment from CCRM. For Patrycja, the best part about her job is that she is exposed to so many different things: “it’s not just the science, but also the market, patentability, and investment.”
When asked what advice she can offer to our Immunology graduate students seeking a similar non-academic career path, Patrycja encourages us to not be afraid to try new things. “Definitely try to reach out. It takes guts to [cold-call someone on LinkedIn], but once you do it a few times, it gets easy,” she advises, “Another way to jump into industry is to get an internship, which you should get paid for; never do it for free.” She also advises students to engage in teaching assistantships and community outreach as methods of learning how to translate complicated science into easily understandable digestible bits.
Of course, Patrycja’s heart is still with academia, even though she admits it would be difficult for her to go back to the field given the way the system is currently set up. Nevertheless, she offers sound advice for those wishing to pursue academic research as well. “What’s really valuable is taking that initial time—spend that week or two weeks—to really think about your experiments,” she says, “Think about your approach, try to storyboard from the beginning what your paper is going to look like, what kind of figures you will need to include, what story you will tell.” Considering the laboratories she follows in her search for new innovations, Patrycja also believes academics can no longer be pigeonholed into one field of research these days. Finally, industry networking is not as essential for the academic path, although it definitely comes in handy later on when PIs are seeking match-support for big infrastructure grants like CFI or Genome Canada. Rather, success in academia comes down to hard work and luck. “It’s hard work, it’s really a sacrifice, but you also need to be lucky,” she concludes.
Our conversation steered from the future of graduate students to the future of biomedical research. Given her close relationship to industry partners, subscription to the latest homegrown innovations in Toronto, and vicinity of her office to the city’s leading AI research institutes and start-ups, it’s no surprise that Patrycja has much to say about Toronto’s up and coming status as a global innovation hub. The hype is real—Toronto has what it takes to match Silicon Valley in terms of AI research and innovation, Patrycja believes, citing our breakthrough discoveries in the fields of genetics and immunology, as well as strong engineering research programs. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement. “What has to happen more is this interdisciplinary linking,” she asserts, “and I think with AI, it’ll be more pronounced, because now you can use AI to develop better diagnostic tools and screening approaches.”
As the interview drew to a close, I asked Patrycja perhaps the most important question of them all: to which immune cell does she most relate, and why? Her answer was instantaneous—a T cell. “A T cell is a doer, and I think of myself as a doer. I’m not afraid to jump in and attack something with an evidence-based approach, such as a project, and be very efficient at it. I’m also able to learn quickly the first time around, so the second time around I’m more efficient and smarter about doing it, just like a memory T cell. And the versatility—you can be an effector T cell, but you can also be a helper T cell. And you’re committed early on, and once you’re committed, you’re locked in!” Indeed, with her charismatic go-getter attitude and history of adapting herself to different work environments, Patrycja truly does embody the T cell.
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